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"You could be a doctor!"

Well-meaning people sometimes suggest that a nurse they find to be skilled or knowledgeable could or should be a physician, or kiddingly address such a nurse as if he were a physician. Although nurses appreciate compliments, we view these usually innocent comments as unhelpful to the profession. In many ways it is a way of saying "You sound smart, so why stay in nursing where you follow commands and clean up messes? Go be somebody who matters!"

Nurses work together with physicians to restore and maintain health. But nursing is an autonomous profession with its own theory, scholarship and clinical practice areas. Nurses are not junior physicians or physicians' assistants, and few nurses wish to become physicians. In fact, nursing has its own "doctors:" nurses with doctorates in nursing.

In many cases, these statements reflect a common stereotype that a health care worker who displays significant knowledge or technical skills must be a physician, since nurses do not have such qualities. When it becomes obvious that a particular nurse does have such qualities, it is not surprising that many conclude she must be exceptional, which does not conflict with their larger pre-existing ideas. The challenge is to help the public see that knowledgeable, skilled nurses are not the exception, but the rule.

Breaking down this part of the nursing stereotype could also help persuade more bright, motivated people to enter the profession and relieve the current shortage.

Not all elements of the common nursing stereotype are negative. Many regard nurses as notably trustworthy, caring and patient-focused. However, we are still waiting to hear about a physician who displays these qualities being told: "You could be a nurse!" Of course, given the wide disparity in status between physicians and nurses, such a statement would be virtually impossible today. And we are not suggesting that it should be made; it could reflect negative stereotyping of physicians.