MTV's "Scrubbing In" undermines nursing
October 24, 2013 - MTV's new reality show Scrubbing In, which premiered tonight, focuses on nine young travel nurses in California, but it isn't really about nursing. Sure, the show created a firestorm in the nursing community before it even aired because of advance indications that the nurses might come off as twits 'n' sluts. The first episode does suggest that the nurses were not selected to appear because of their nursing experience or ability to convey an accurate and comprehensive picture of the profession. Instead, they seem to have been chosen for their strong personalities, physical appearance, and eagerness to embrace reality show culture. The vast majority of the episode is the nurses' personal interactions, with a focus on partying, romance, and sex (e.g., "I have big fake boobs!" "Did you guys bring your vibrators?"). Well, that's a different vision of Nursing's Future for show sponsor Johnson & Johnson, whose Neutrogena products were advertised during the episode, isn't it? The episode's limited depictions of nursing are pretty awful. At one point, two nurses do a passable job caring for a patient who looks like she is faking a seizure for the camera, but the scene does not exactly inspire confidence in their skills or knowledge. Another time, a nurse who is apparently on duty is shown practicing starting IV's in a way that suggests she has little idea what she's doing. Another nurse spends significant time trying to help her and is later chastised (rightly) by his supervisor for abandoning his unit. Two nurses show up in California without California nursing licenses (apparently those DUIs were creating a delay!). A nurse sits on her bed wearing dirty scrubs, heedless of the potential for bringing deadly organisms into her personal surroundings, as another nurse points out to her--and to viewers. There is virtually no mention here of nursing education, practice specialties, research, or policy leadership. Nurses, like anyone else, should be allowed to discuss and engage in social activity in any lawful way; nurses are not angels and holding them to regressive personal moral standards actually undermines the profession. But associating nursing with frank sexuality does risk reinforcing the naughty nurse image that the average reality show participant does not face. And watching several of the nurses giggle about looking for "hot doctors" calls to mind the related stereotype that nurses are physician golddiggers. On the whole, the show fails to convey that the vast majority of nurses are serious professionals who save and improve lives with their advanced skills. And because the show's focus and structure is personal drama and self-reflection among reality-show twenty-somethings, many viewers may conclude that nurses in general are not especially serious about their work--and that they don't need to be. The show is likely to reinforce ideas that have long undermined nurses' claims to adequate resources for education and clinical practice and that now threaten the health of millions worldwide. We urge MTV to cancel the show, and we hope that at a minimum, the producers will try to give some sense of real nursing skill.
Success! See the concessions MTV has made on November 12, 2013, or read more of our original campaign below.
To keep things in perspective, it must be said that Scrubbing In, with its limited focus and reach (fewer than 700,000 viewers watched the premiere), is far less damaging than popular network shows like ABC's Grey's Anatomy that spend years pushing persuasive images of nurses as low-skilled physician subordinates to a wide range of viewers around the world (more than 8.7 million U.S. viewers watched the latest episode of Grey's, even though the show is in its 10th season). It's also a little tricky to critique a show like this one because the cast members do seem to be actual nurses who have chosen to appear and say and do the things we see, although the awkward way the nurses act at some points suggests there is significant scripting and direction from show producers. We note that apart from the age and personality constraints of the MTV demographic, the cast is pretty diverse: six women, one African-American, three men, one gay man (it's also possible that one or more of the women are gay). In addition, it's true that other reality-oriented health shows, like Terence Wrong's ABC News documentaries, and of course dramas like Grey's, focus on the personal lives of young physicians. But those shows are deeply interested in showing that the physicians are commanding, life-saving health experts, and they include countless examples of the physicians displaying formidable skill. None of that is true of Scrubbing In. And many of the show's impressionable young viewers may assume that it gives a comprehensive, balanced view of who nurses are today. Although some of the nurses do apparently have a few years of experience, we see little evidence of that in the first episode. And none of them seem to be in any position to speak for the profession as a whole, although they will inevitably be seen that way by at least some viewers.
We have no objection to reality shows in general. People have the right to show the public the kind of conduct we see on Scrubbing In. But when that conduct is so closely associated with nursing, it can be troubling, because of the profession's poor image. Nursing has endured decades of negative media images, including the enduring ideas that nurses are unskilled and sexually available. These stereotypes form the foundation of the disrespect and underfunding that has led to the global nursing shortage, which kills millions of people every year. And because of nursing's poor image, it matters which nurses are chosen to appear on a show like Scrubbing In and what they are seen to be doing on the show. We cannot assume that the public, particularly the young MTV demographic, will know that there are millions of highly qualified professional nurses out there regardless of what appears on this show. So the show is a public health problem.
If MTV would like to do a show featuring nine of the best and brightest young nurses--and we could find nurses in that group who are engaging and attractive enough to appear on a show like this--we would be happy to advise them and help pave the way to greater public understanding of nursing. In fact, television can provide helpful accounts of real, skilled nurses having compelling, sometimes difficult interactions with patients and colleagues. A recent example is Channel 4's very good 24 Hours in A&E in the U.K. So it might be nice to think that Scrubbing In could be improved enough to become a net gain for nursing, perhaps through more and better clinical portrayals. But sadly, we doubt that such an improvement is likely given the show's current overall structure and personnel. We do urge the producers to try to convey as much as they can about real nursing skill within the current constraints.
On the whole, we believe it would be best if the show did not continue to be aired at all in its current form, and we urge MTV to cancel it.