Changing how the world thinks about nursing

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Speaking abstract:

In-depth four-part examination on nursing in the media and how nurses can change it to strengthen nursing and improve patient care


Speaker: Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Founder and Executive Director, The Truth About Nursing


Part I

Why Does the Media Matter? How the Media Affects Nursing and the Health of Patients

Sandra Jacobs SummersA large body of health care research shows that even entertainment media products have a significant effect on how people think and act with regard to nursing. Television programs often feature physician characters performing the meaningful work that nurses do in real life, leaving nurse characters to do unskilled work.

In large part because of how the media ignores nurses or misportrays them, too few decision-makers know that nurses are skilled professionals. As a result, nurses do not yet have the authority and resources needed to prevent as many errors or save as many lives as they could. When nursing practice, education, research, and residencies are not adequately funded or supported, patient care is weaker and patients are more vulnerable.

I will explore the research showing how the media affects our conscious and subconscious thinking, especially in relation to health and nursing, as well as some notable examples of the effects the media has on public understanding.

Part II

Examining the Effects of the Global Images of Nursing and Health Care

The media often conveys that nurses are unskilled and do little of real value; in many cases, physicians receive credit for meaningful work that nurses really do. In fact, media products have long shaped and reinforced inaccurate perceptions about nursing work, presenting nurses in stereotypical terms: unskilled handmaidens, female sex objects, oppressable angels, or oppressive battleaxes. I will discuss each of the major stereotypes of nursing, using film clips to show examples from different media around the world.

Part III

Increasing the Valuation of Nursing To Improve the Quality and Length of Patient Lives

An important part of improving health care is educating the public, including health care decision-makers, about the true nature and value of what nurses do to save lives. Nursing's three key components are to provide clinical care, educate patients, and advocate for them. But because of the poor understanding and undervaluation of nursing, many nurses cannot adequately fulfill any of these missions.

Clinical Care

Although the clinical care that nurses provide is complex, that fact is not well understood. So nurses are often replaced by less educated personnel who are not qualified to perform front line health surveillance, including the vital nursing responsibility to identify patients who are on a downward trajectory. As a result, nurses may be unable to rescue patients when they could if the vital and challenging nature of their work was understood.

Patient Education

When the media depicts nurses as unskilled, a natural assumption by media consumers is that nurses are also uneducated. Patients are not eager to accept health education from people they do not see as educated professionals. So nurses cannot function effectively in this regard--patient do not learn the information they need to get and stay healthy, and patient care suffers.

Patient Advocacy

Many in the healthcare delivery system, including patients, administrators, and physicians, do not realize that nurses are there to act as skilled advocates for patients. So patients may overlook nurses as allies in their care. In addition, not enough physicians understand nursing autonomy or nurses' legal and ethical obligations to advocate for patients, so they may see advocacy as insubordination rather than good nursing care. In some cases, nurses have been disciplined for doing what their patients need them to do. When nurses are caught in such conflict, duty bound to protect patients but subject to negative action by physicians and hospital managers for fulfilling that duty, patient care suffers.

Part IV

Taking Action to Develop Public Understanding of the Value of Nursing, Thereby Strengthening Nursing and Patient Care

If the media depicted nursing as a vital scientific endeavor requiring advanced education--if the public could see nurses engaged in skilled surveillance, monitoring, intervention, education, and advocacy to keep patients alive and help them thrive--then those with decision-making authority would surely direct more funding to nursing and strengthen the profession.

I will offer innovative strategies to help nurses improve understanding of their profession, including everyday health education, "; nursing out loud"; in clinical settings, speaking to local groups, creating media from books to dolls for children, responding to existing media depictions, and initiatives to educate the world about nursing. Nurses can forge alliances with others, including other nurses, physicians, writers, and journalists, to help spread understanding of nursing and increase respect for its practitioners, thereby promoting greater investment in education, clinical practice, research, and residencies. By asking society to reconsider how it thinks and acts toward nursing, we empower nurses to improve patient safety, reduce turnover, strengthen nursing, and enhance public health.

(These are envisioned to be roughly 45 minutes each, but can be adapted to fit almost any length of time)

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