Changing how the world thinks about nursing

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Open Letter #10 to Grey's Anatomy

Dear "Grey's Anatomy" Producers:

I am writing to encourage you to improve the portrayal of nursing on "Grey's Anatomy." The first two episodes of the 2006-2007 season, like all prior episodes, told viewers that physicians deliver all health care that matters--including patient monitoring, patient emotional support, family relations, patient advocacy, and supportive and therapeutic care that nurses do in real life. As you know, since all major show characters are physicians, there were no nurse characters to deliver this key care. In the midst of a global nursing shortage that is based largely on a lack of understanding of the nursing profession, the continuation of this unrealistic portrayal of nursing is irresponsible.

In the September 21, 2006 season premiere, experienced nurse Olivia confronts a sick newborn much as a deer faces headlights. Intern Alex orders Olivia to get him IV materials as he whisks the baby out of the flu-stricken ED. At first Olivia can only babble "How old's that baby?", and sputter that she's just been sent down from the floor to handle the flu overflow. But she does recover enough to snap that the infant has to be admitted to the hospital--which Alex of course ignores, since he's all about saving lives.

In the September 28, 2006 episode, nurse Tyler informs intern Cristina that he was part of a team that just saved a life in a code. We appreciate this minor effort to tell viewers that nurses help save lives, but we get no specifics. And Tyler tells Cristina only to justify his failure to earn the $20 she paid him to act as a lookout, so she could have sex with her boyfriend, an ailing attending surgeon, in his hospital bed. Tyler seems to get the last laugh, but he's still a lackey who accepts $20 tips for tasks other than his real job. Later, we see what Tyler really does for patients. He pages intern George to tell him that a pre-op lung cancer patient has been shoplifting and is planning to leave without having her operation. Then Tyler steps back to let George handle the important health care issues.

My concerns about the show's portrayal of nursing extend to every episode that has been broadcast. Ten of ten major show characters are physicians, despite the central role nurses play in hospitals, which exist primarily to provide nursing care. Physician characters often perform key tasks that are generally the province of nurses, including various treatments, patient monitoring and psycho-social support. The show seems to reflect the view that now that women can become physicians, nursing work no longer matters (if it ever did). Nurses are typically presented as marginally skilled physician subordinates, usually faceless and mute--like wallpaper. And earlier episodes have offered a vision of nurses as fawning or vindictive losers (or even sluts, e.g. "skanky syph nurse") whose lives revolve around the physician characters. I do commend the show for decreasing the frequency with which its physician heroes express contempt for nurses.

However, simply decreasing the characters' express contempt is not enough. The undervaluation of nursing, including media depictions of nurses as peripheral physician subordinates, erodes financial support for nursing clinical practice, education and research, driving the global shortage. Underfunding nursing also increases patient mortality, increases errors and poor outcomes like infections, and adds millions of patient hospital days, all of which fuel rising health care costs. For the nursing shortage to end, society must learn what nurses do to save lives and improve outcomes, which also means unlearning the common misconception that physicians do important work that nurses really do. And unlearning--whether done by the general public or Hollywood producers--is clearly very difficult.

I know the entertainment media resists the idea that its products can cause real-world harm (real-word good is another matter, as the industry's embrace of media public service awards shows). But research shows that entertainment television like "Grey's Anatomy" has a real effect on health care views and actions. That's why public health groups like Hollywood, Health and Society work to improve public understanding of key health information through shows and public service announcements.

I urge you to minimize the damage done by "Grey's Anatomy" by consulting a nurse expert in creating your scripts. Having a nurse on the set to teach actors playing physicians how to convincingly do the work that real nurses do is not helping nursing--it is harming nursing. I also urge you to consider dramatic changes that would allow the show to provide a vision of modern health care that gives viewers at least some basic sense of the role of skilled nurses in modern care.

Even if there is no room for even one major nurse character, or a recurring one who does more than act as a pathetic foil to the physicians, more could be done in virtually every clinical scene to avoid the suggestion that nurses are silent handmaidens. For example, a nurse character might be shown actually having a meaningful care interaction with a patient, or doing defibrillation or other key tasks nurses do in real life.

Real nurses are skilled, autonomous professionals who play a central role in health care--if they can persuade decision-makers and the public to provide the resources needed. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of global health depends in significant part on better understanding of nursing. We hope that "Grey's Anatomy" will move toward being part of the solution.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH
Executive Director
Center for Nursing Advocacy
203 Churchwardens Rd.
Baltimore MD 21212