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Infirmieres Sans Frontières

November 30, 2006 -- Recently, the Nobel Prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) launched a U.S. tour of an exhibit highlighting the global aid group's vital work in conflict zones. "A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City" features MSF aid workers guiding visitors through a model of actual relief facilities. The exhibit explains the challenges MSF faces in providing care, nutrition, and decent living conditions. This is a perfect time to thank the group for its admirable work--and to note that its continuing use of the name "Doctors Without Borders" sends an inaccurate message about who is doing that work. We understand nurses are the most numerous health professionals among MSF workers, and they play a central role in the group's efforts. Yet when journalist Suzanne Gordon suggested to a physician MSF leader that the group consider adopting a name that did not slight its nurses, the leader said that she hoped MSF would never be so "stupid" as to do so. The Center has tried to discuss the matter with MSF for two months, but we have gotten no real response. The group's name seems to reflect the undervaluation of nursing that is undermining health worldwide, particularly in the developing nations MSF tries to help. We doubt that MSF would suffer by phasing in a similar name, like "Soins Sans Frontières" ("Health Care Without Borders"). We urge MSF to give its own nurses the credit they deserve--and that nurses everywhere need to help their patients.

Read more below or go straight to our letter-writing campaign

MSF Has Refused to Consider a Name That Would Not Exclude Nurses

Why Household Names Matter

Nurses Are at the Core of MSF's Work Worldwide

In View of the Deadly Global Nursing Shortage, We Urge MSF to Reconsider Its Name

MSF Has Refused to Consider a Name That Would Not Exclude Nurses

In her important 2005 book Nursing Against the Odds, Suzanne Gordon, a Center board member, explained (at 52-53) that Doctors Without Borders

won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its courageous international work. What is less well known is that the majority of its members are not doctors but nurses. Yet the organization is not called Doctors and Nurses Without Borders...[which] would more correctly convey the role nurses and other nonphysicians play in the group.   ...

Several years ago, I was talking with one of the leaders of the organization. When I politely asked this female physician leader about the choice of name, she became extremely annoyed. The organization now had "name recognition," she insisted. I suggested that a small change in its title would hardly jeopardize its renown. She responded angrily. "Well, I certainly hope we would never do anything that stupid." This medical confiscation of nurses' contributions assures, as one nurse put it, that "doctors get all the credit when something goes right. We get credit only when something goes wrong."

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the MSF physician's dismissive attitude reflects a belief that the concerns of nurses don't matter much. As Gordon notes, a group with the prominence and resources of MSF could easily navigate a minor name change. We like "Soins Sans Frontières," proposed by Swiss Center board member Pierre-André Wagner, but it's just one possibility. (We understand "soins" roughly translates to "care," and can encompass medicine (soins médicaux) and nursing (soins infirmiers).) The corporate world is full of major companies that have changed their names completely in recent years as a result of mergers (e.g., Verizon, Novartis). We would be surprised to hear that MSF had done any actual research suggesting that any change to its name, even a minor one phased in over time with reasonable public notice, would harm its image or operations. Indeed, the name change itself could provide helpful publicity. We understand that MSF was founded long ago by several physicians. But that does nothing to alter the fact that its name sends an inaccurate message about what the prominent organization does around the world today.

There is precedent for large organizations changing the way they do things in order to fairly credit nurses for their work. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) commendably agreed to change the name of its annual minority health campaign from "Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day" to "Take a Loved One for a Checkup Day." This public health campaign continues to prosper, and we are aware of no decline in its influence as a result of the change. MSF's current position resembles that of the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, a key partner in the HHS campaign, which appears to be virtually alone in steadfastly clinging to the name "Doctor Day." Our discussions with the Joyner show suggest that it has a vague belief that the old name has "capital," and that it may not grasp that nurses play a key role in providing primary care to minority populations. Of course, by contrast, MSF is well aware that nurses are vital to its operations.

Why Household Names Matter

But does it really matter what name Médecins Sans Frontières has? Yes. First, as we have sad cause to note virtually every day, physicians do not deserve credit for nurses' work, whether that credit comes from the government, hospitals, the news media, Hollywood, radio personalities, or globally influential aid groups. It's also clear that names and images that permeate modern culture--like "Doctors Without Borders"--have a significant effect on how people view the world and how they act. NBC recently decided to call the Iraq conflict a "civil war"; a media uproar ensued. Extensive public health research shows that the mass media affects the public's health care views and actions. If that were not the case, MSF would not care so much what name it uses. Nor would it be mounting the current media campaign about refugee camps. That exhibit's apparent goal is to increase understanding of MSF's work and financial support for its activities. The campaign included an extensive press kit, and the group has placed many links to media coverage of the exhibit on its web site. To claim that media image does not matter would be to reject everything MSF is doing in the campaign.

Nurses Are at the Core of MSF's Work Worldwide

But what do nurses actually do for MSF? We're glad you asked! One former U.S. board president of MSF is a nurse: community health expert Carol Etherington. Another notable MSF nurse is Mary Lightfine, a lecturer and media figure who has worked for MSF in nations like Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Lightfine publicizes her activities with the name "Nurse Without Boundaries"--which actually highlights the exclusion of nurses from the name of her organization.

As Suzanne Gordon demonstrates in Nursing Against the Odds (at 52, 187-88), nurses are generally missing from press accounts about MSF's work. They tend to be dominated by physician comment and suggestions that the group is composed only of physicians, which we suppose is somewhat understandable, given the name. However, in the last several years we have found a few media products that do give a sense of nurses' real contributions.

On September 16, 2006, Radio New Zealand ran a brief unsigned article headlined "NZ nurse calls for pressure over Darfur situation." It reported that Auckland nurse Lisa Blaker "from the group Médecins Sans Frontières" was urging New Zealanders to pressure political and diplomatic leaders "to make sure a United Nations peacekeeping force is sent to the stricken Sudanese province." The piece said that Blaker had just returned from Darfur. It also noted that the Sudanese government has said it will not allow the proposed force into the nation, and it provided a link to an Amnesty International petition in support of the force. In addition to being a good example of patient advocacy, Blaker's media outreach shows the key role that some MSF nurses play in building developed world support for the aid group's work.

In July 2005, the Guardian (U.K.) web site posted a powerful AP story by Nafi Diouf about efforts by MSF and the U.N. to cope with the devastating famine in Niger, where almost a third of the population was "in crisis." The MSF mobile health team profiled in the piece was led by Theodore Bitangui, a nurse from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was composed of nine nurses, eight nutritional assistants, and two drivers. The mobile centers that such teams set up provide food and health care to threatened people in remote areas. The piece quotes Bitangui, who describes the team's work to assess and treat the severely malnourished, including weighing and screening for malaria, "as anxious mothers sitting under a blazing sun watched his every move." One mother interviewed marvels at the weight gain in her year-old daughter after a month on the program. The piece also quotes team member Balki Harouna, a nurse whose long hours for the mobile team "mean[] more than a secure job and enough food to feed her family": "[W]e are giving back to our society and these people who haven't had any luck."

In July 2004, a column by Carol Goar in the Toronto Star, "Miracles amid misery in Sudan," recounted the recent experience of nurse Nancy Dale as part of an MSF team in Darfur. There, government-backed militias had reportedly "slaughtered an estimated 30,000 men and raped and brutalized their wives and children," driving more than one million from their homes and creating a staggering humanitarian crisis. Dale, a 10-year ICU veteran, arrived in one of the camps surrounding a remote Darfur town to "run a medical clinic coupled with a feeding centre for severely malnourished children." Many of the children reached her clinic close to death: dehydrated and suffering from diarrhea, chest infections, and measles. Many of their mothers were traumatized, having been raped and having watched their relatives slaughtered. Dale worked 12 hour days for three straight months, caring for patients suffering from bullet wounds and sexual abuse, building trust and teaching 40 local staff (many refugees themselves) to change dressings, distribute medicines, and perform important clinic administrative tasks. This focus on capacity-building is a hallmark of good nursing--and good development work. The children, who at first "barely looked human," began to revive. Dale's team, which initially included only her, a physician, and a "logistician," grew to seven. She emphasizes its diversity, with members from France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Japan coming together to get the job done. The piece notes that Dale and her team saved "[p]robably hundreds" of lives during her time there. We note that Dale and the column itself emphasize that the health care team saved lives--not one particular type of professional all by him or herself.

And in July 2003, the National Geographic Channel aired an episode of "Doctors Without Borders: Life in the Field," a cable television series about MSF's work. This episode, "Cool Hand Luc," focused on the work of nurses in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Uzbekistan. Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, the episode told the stories of four MSF workers: a veteran nurse running a health care system in an Ivory Coast prison with "tough love;" a young Belgian nurse in a race to get a child treatment for tuberculosis in the midst of a refugee crisis in Sierra Leone; a Dutch nurse on a mission to contain tuberculosis in a depressed region of Uzbekistan; and a British engineer also in Uzbekistan working to clear sewage from the lower level of a large hospital.

In View of the Deadly Global Nursing Shortage, We Urge MSF to Reconsider Its Name

Despite the fact that most MSF health professionals are nurses, the Center is not asking MSF to change its name to "Nurses Without Borders" or "Infirmières Sans Frontières"--even though that French name rhymes and would be catchier than the current one! Such job-specific names would have some of the same negative effects as the current one, excluding physicians and others who play important roles in the MSF team effort. All we're asking is that MSF consider a slight change that would eliminate the current suggestion--a demonstrably inaccurate one--that its work is overwhelmingly performed by physicians. When more people understand the value of nurses' work, it will be easier for nursing to get the clinical and educational resources it needs to resolve the nursing shortage and meet the challenges of 21 st Century health care.

Almost two months ago, the Center contacted MSF's U.S. headquarters in New York, in the hope that we could begin a dialogue about a possible name change. On October 11, we sent MSF a letter explaining our concerns in detail. We have been told repeatedly that MSF will respond, but so far the group has failed to do so.

Now we're asking for your help.

Please click here to send our instant letter, or one of your own to Médecins Sans Frontières today Tell MSF that even Nobel Prize-winning aid groups owe nurses a fair account of their work. Thank you!