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Open Letter #7 to Grey's Anatomy

Dear Ms. Rhimes, Mr. Gordon, Mr. Parriott, Ms. Beers, Dr. Klein, Ms. Gilmore, Ms. Liggins, Ms. Tobin and Mr. Thompson:

I am writing to express my continuing concern about the portrayal of the nursing profession on "Grey's Anatomy." The November 6, 2005 episode, while apparently a token effort to show nurses some respect, still associates nursing with "bedpan" tasks that seem menial, wrongly suggests that physicians help with them, reinforces battleaxe stereotypes, and does nothing to show what nursing is really about. Sadly, it is consistent with the show's overall vision of nurses as fawning or vindictive losers whose lives revolve around the physician characters. The episode suggests that the problem with anti-nurse slurs is not that they're inaccurate. It's just, as one resident notes, "stupid" to anger nurses--the petty clean-up crew of health care.

And the episode that aired on October 23, 2005 lightheartedly suggested that naughty nurse video p*ornography was a viable pain management tool, even though such enduring stereotypes continue to be a factor in the devaluation of nursing. Indeed, so far this season "Grey's Anatomy" nurses seem to pop up mainly as degraded tools in the show's sexual drama (fulfilling stereotypes, spreading STD's, getting dumped for more attractive physicians). Meanwhile, the heroic physicians provide all important care.

Our concerns about the show's portrayal of nursing extend to every episode that has been broadcast. Nine of nine major show characters are physicians, despite the central role nurses play in hospitals, which exist primarily to provide nursing care. Physician characters perform key tasks that are generally the province of nurses, including various treatments, patient monitoring and psycho-social support. With only a few limited exceptions, such as the episode with the character described as Ellis's scrub nurse, nurses have been presented as marginally skilled physician subordinates, usually faceless and mute--like wallpaper.

Sadly, some episodes have not stopped at ignoring nurses' vital contributions or pretending they are the province of physicians. These episodes present and even endorse explicit insults to nursing. The most striking, of course, were the initial episodes in which it became clear that the young female intern characters regarded the word "nurse" as a major insult.

As you may know, research shows that entertainment television like "Grey's Anatomy" and other Hollywood dramas has a significant effect on health care views and actions. Public health groups, such as Hollywood, Health and Society, work hard to improve public understanding of key health information through shows and public service announcements. Unfortunately, the public's poor understanding of nursing, reinforced by regressive media depictions of nurses as sexbots and peripheral physician subordinates, is a major factor in the nursing shortage that threatens lives worldwide.

I urge you to make efforts to minimize the damage done by "Grey's Anatomy" by consulting a nurse expert in the creation of each of your scripts. 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 mere 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 proposing a course of action, speaking 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