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Nurses strike Seattle Grace Hospital? What nurses?

January 23, 2006 -- -- The Jan. 22 episode of ABC's hit "Grey's Anatomy" (analysis pending) actually had a minor subplot in which nurses expressed frustration with short-staffing (!). And the episode set to air on Jan. 29 will evidently feature a nursing strike, with a focus on the struggle of the show's 10 physician characters to cope without nurses. Of course, since these physicians already provide virtually all the nursing on the show, including key procedures, monitoring, and patient relations that nurses do in real life, you might well ask just what additional things the physicians are going to do in this episode. If the Jan. 22 episode is any guide, we'll see the pretty intern stars trying to do their important jobs as well as what the show will likely present as the nurses' annoying administrative and grunt work. In the Jan. 22 episode, the nurses' jobs seemed to consist of managing room occupancies and paperwork. The show's few, generally nameless nurses are often associated with problems (bureaucracy, petulance, infidelity, STDs, porn, failure, strikes, we could go on), but not with important patient care. And while we appreciate the show's nod at the short-staffing that now threatens many nurses' practice, the Jan. 22 episode wrongly told viewers that the disgruntled nurses reported to the chief of surgery--a damaging inaccuracy for an autonomous profession in the midst of what may be the worst shortage in its history. By the way, none other than TV Guide noted in its preview for the Jan. 29 episode (Jan. 23-29 issue) that it had "hardly even noticed there were nurses on this show. (Except for the syph-giving one...)" Right. Anyway, we urge all to watch the episode, and let the show creators know whether it gives a good sense of what happens to patients when nurses are not there.

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The show's habit of showing physician characters performing key nursing tasks, while nurses push papers and snipe, matters because research shows that such entertainment media products have a real effect on health care views and actions. "Grey's Anatomy" is especially influential because it often reaches 20 million or more viewers in the U.S. alone; 21.3 million watched the Jan. 22 episode. So, will the Jan. 29 episode give those viewers a real sense of why nurse short-staffing threatens patient care? Will we finally learn what nurses really do for patients? And what about the effects of the strike? Will we see nursing managers (to our knowledge none has ever appeared on the show) desperately trying to staff the units? Will patients be failing because nurses are not there to provide skilled care that physicians could not begin to do? Wait. OK, stop. Come on now. Look--we can't talk at all if you won't stop laughing, can we?

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