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"New breed" of nurse? Or just new to you?

April 3, 2005 -- Today the Sunday Times (U.K.) ran a fairly good piece by Richard Brooks about a new documentary film produced by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to explain nursing to the public and close the gap between the profession's image and reality. The story, entitled "Ooh matron, this is a new breed of nurse," discusses the profession's traditional "battleaxe or bimbo" image and (briefly) its current recruiting problems.

The piece notes that the purpose of the new RCN film, set for release this week, is to "rebrand" nursing and "alter the public perception" of it. It explains that the RCN believes that nurses "are still seen as either the stern matron figure portrayed by Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films or, at the other extreme, the sex-mad characters played by Barbara Windsor in the same series of movies." One consultant is quoted as saying that "[n]o other profession has an image more at odds with reality." Together with the film, the RCN is releasing the results of a poll showing that the nurses who are best known to the British public are war time nurses from the distant past: Florence Nightingale and Edith Clavell (above right), "the British nurse executed by the Germans in the first world war." Number three was actress Hattie Jacques (above left). The best known "modern" nurse was a character from the television series "Casualty," Charlie Fairhead (right), credited by the RCN with helping to counter stereotypes of men in nursing. The piece notes that the nursing image in current popular media remains problematic, citing Channel 4's "No Angels," (2 photos below) in which "three of the four nurses are portrayed as sexually voracious and are shown cutting corners and making mistakes."

The new RCN film, which will be used as part of a recruitment drive, "will detail how nurses’ jobs now require far more medical and technical expertise than previously and how they must act as the 'voice and advocate' for the patient, particularly when dealing with doctors." This is fine as far as it goes, though it arguably does a disservice to the nurses of past decades who always had a far more important clinical role than was acknowledged; nurses did not just become serious professionals and patient advocates in the last few years (remember Florence Nightingale from 150 years ago?). In addition to countering "battleaxe or bimbo" stereotyping, the RCN hopes the film will "help dispel nursing’s 'yuk' image among schoolchildren for whom it may be associated with traditional roles such as emptying bedpans and dressing wounds." On the other hand, the piece notes that some worry that the "rebranding" effort may "bring a risk of neglecting the job's basic roles," quoting the head of the Patients Association (a nurse herself) as complaining that some nurses may now see themselves as "ersatz doctors." This general "too posh to wash" concern, which has received attention before in the British press, would seem to relate to a belief that certain aspects of physical care are not necessary to nursing's continuous assessment role, or perhaps somehow inconsistent with critical thinking and clinical expertise. The term "ersatz doctors" is problematic, since it may imply that modern nurses are trying to be physicians, that nurses should know their (lower) place, or that physicians are in fact too good to provide direct physical care. And if some are concerned that registered nurses are getting too uppity, we can only imagine what such critics might think of advanced practice nurses, whose scope of practice overlaps even more with that of physicians.

Remarkably, the piece does not quite mention the nursing shortage. But it does report that an astonishing half of all new nursing recruits come from outside the U.K., then cites poll results apparently showing that 70% of British nurses are "very satisfied" with their work, a figure that is higher than the one for professions like teaching and social work. The piece makes no effort to explain this apparent conflict. (Is it that nurses are satisfied once they get into the job, but not enough have so far been lured in? Or that nurses are satisfied with their work, but feel that they do not now enjoy the conditions necessary to do it? Or is it that nurses are socialized not to complain?) In any case, the piece does quote Jean Gray, editor of Nursing Standard, noting that recruitment of nurses from within the nation must improve, since many of the other nations sending nurses to the U.K. cannot afford to do without them.

See the article "Ooh matron, this is a new breed of nurse" by Richard Brooks from the April 3, 2005 edition of the Times of London.


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