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The 2011 Truth About Nursing Awards

Best and Worst Award Winners 
The Truth About Nursing announces the ninth annual list of the best and worst media portrayals of nurses! The year 2011 featured the impressive 14-part U.K. documentary 24 Hours in the ER, as well as strong nursing advocacy in the media from National Nurses United and many other nurses. TNT's HawthoRNe ended its three-season run, offering a few more portrayals of nursing skill and authority, despite some damaging suggestions that physicians really call the shots. The year also featured more of Showtime’s compelling Nurse Jackie, which included some depictions of strong, expert nursing, These UPI items highlighted wrongly suggested that nurses report to physicians. And mainstream press sources published good pieces ranging from the New York Times obituary for nursing leader Joyce Clifford, to United Press International items about nurses' public health advocacy on issues like teen suicide, to a South African Press Association report noting that Zimbabwean nurses must sell fruit in order to make ends meet.

On the other hand, the year also included the usual onslaught of damaging distortions from popular Hollywood products and the news media. The U.S. prime time landscape remained dominated by shows with little respect for nursing, including ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice and Fox's House, each of which featured a slew of strong, expert physician characters providing all meaningful care, while nurses were handmaidens who did little more than fetch things. And the "naughty nurse" remained a staple of the entertainment industry, appearing in everything from the new NBC sitcom Whitney to a Halloween-themed show at the family-oriented theme park Busch Gardens. The news media continued to issue "serious" articles about health care that assumed only physicians really matter, such as Harvard physician Jerome Groopman's New Yorker piece about NICUs, where, in reality, nurses take the lead. Even groups ostensibly trying to help nurses fell prey to damaging stereotypes, notably the unskilled angel. Johnson & Johnson released new television ads as part of its Campaign for Nursing's Future, but they relied heavily on emotional themes and did little to convey nurses' real skills. And Kaiser Permanente aired a radio ad for Nurses Week that was nonstop scut-work-saint imagery, as it extolled nurses for their "gargantuan heart[s] all squishy with compassion thumping away." Clearly, we have a long way to go. But we thank those responsible for the best media and encourage others to keep trying.

Ten Best Media Portrayals of Nursing 2011

Ten Worst Media Portrayals of Nursing 2011

Special Awards

Pat on the Head Award

Slide From Grace Award

Ten Best Media Portrayals of Nursing 2011

  1. Nurses protest on stepsNational Nurses United
  2. Long before the Occupy Wall Street movement, National Nurses United (NNU) protested the financial industry's role in the nation's economic woes and called for a one-percent tax on Wall Street transactions to fund improved health care, generating helpful press coverage, such as a September 1 Orlando Sentinel piece. NNU's aggressive advocacy reflected a holistic focus on health problems and showed that nurses can be courageous public health leaders.
  3. Joyce CliffordPaul Vitello, New York Times -- "Joyce Clifford, Who Pushed for 'Primary Nursing' Approach, Dies at 76," November 1.
  4. This obituary for nursing leader and hospital executive Joyce Clifford, who pioneered the application of the "primary nursing" care model, highlighted her advocacy of what the piece called a "partnership of equals" between nurses and physicians.
  5. 24 Hours in the ER -- executive producers Nick Curwin, Magnus Temple; series producers Amy Flanagan, Anthony Philipson; Channel 4 and BBC America.
  6. This 14-part documentary set in the emergency department at King's College Hospital in London paid roughly as much attention to nurses and other staff as it did physicians. The result was an engaging, insightful, and often hilarious look at emergency department patients and staff--including skilled, articulate, autonomous nurses.
  7. Kelly Kennedy, USA Today,"Families need to ask questions early about hospice care," August 7.
  8. This short but very good piece on hospice options relied entirely on a hospice nurse and a Wisconsin nursing professor for expert comment, conveying nursing knowledge and the key role nurses play as caregivers and advocates in the hospice setting.
  9. nurses selling fruitReports on resource shortages nurses face in the developing world
  10. News24 (Cape Town) (South African Press Association), "Zim nurses 'reduced to selling fruit,'" July 6;
    Editorial, The Botswana Gazette (Gaborone), "Pay the nurse and save lives," July 6;
    Marie Dhumières, The Lebanon Daily Star, "Nurses' order looks to promote profession as shortage looms," May 9.
  11. Alice Mills and Gina Ann WoodyReports highlighting nursing careers
  12. Daniel Lane, Sydney Morning Herald, "Star nurses new ambitions," July 10. This report on Olympic swimmer Alice Mills explains that her new nursing career "will require all the discipline and stamina she has developed as an elite swimmer."
    Jennifer Swartz, The Daily Reflector (North Carolina), "Scouts zero in on nursing," March 28. This item describes a nursing instructor's annual efforts to introduce girl and boy scouts to nursing through interactive programs. See Gina Ann Woody's video. 
  13. Award winnersNurses advocating in the media and elsewhere
  14. Wendie Howland, for relentlessly monitoring Help a Reporter Out (HARO) and educating reporters seeking health experts that the better choices for their stories are often nurses, rather than the physicians they seek;
    Dee Riley, for leading the Las Vegas chapter of The Truth About Nursing in a peaceful rally on November 12 in front of the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas to protest the anti-health restaurant's naughty nurse waitress outfits;
    Florida nurses seeking staffing legislation, as described in The News-Press (Fort Myers), "St. Bernard from Lehigh leads nurses rally in Tallahassee," April 2, which included a surprisingly detailed discussion of how better nurse staffing saves lives and money;
    The National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP), for issuing an official position statement opposing corporal punishment of kids in homes and schools, as described on, "NAPNAP calls for an end to corporal punishment of children," Marianna Klebenov, August 25;
    Kathleen Bartholomew, for advocacy efforts including an op-ed in The Seattle Times, "Health care: a new civil-rights movement?" October 7;
    Theresa Brown, for media about nursing, including New York Times op-eds "Looking for a Place to Die," December 21, and "Physician, Heel Thyself," May 7; Well blog posts "When Nurses Make Mistakes," July 6, "A Hollywood Movie Takes on Cancer," October 5, and "Practicing on Patients," November 16; and an appearance on NPR's Talk of the Nation, June 6.
  15. Nurse JackieNurse Jackie -- created by Evan Dunsky and Liz Brixius & Linda Wallem; executive producers Linda Wallem, Liz Brixius, Richie Jackson, Christine Zander, Mark Hudis, and Caryn Mandabach; Showtime.
  16. Although the show at times wrongly suggested that physicians manage nurses, lead character Jackie Peyton remained a tough clinical virtuoso helping patients lead better lives despite her serious personal problems, and the show generally presented nurses as life-saving professionals.
  17. Meningitis vaccineUnited Press International, "Program: Teen depression, suicide drops," August 13, and "Nurses urge teens to get meningitis vaccine," August 4.
  18. These UPI items highlighted the public health efforts of nurses who developed a curriculum to prevent teen suicide and others who worked to increase teen vaccinations to prevent meningitis.
  19. RD coverMichelle Crouch, Reader's Digest, "50 Secrets Nurses Won't Tell You," November.
  20. Nurses featured in this cover story made good points about nursing skill, from saving lives to psychosocial care, and a few even conveyed something of nursing autonomy and advocacy, with several references to questioning physician care plans.

 Honorable Mention

  • whistleblowerAllison Gendar, New York Daily News, "Nurse fired for trying to expose Roosevelt Hospital's neglect in death of homeless man: lawsuit," March 28.
  • This piece described Danna Novak, an emergency department nurse, who says she tried but failed to get colleagues to treat a man who was later found dead outside the hospital and that she was then fired after trying to expose what happened.


Ten Worst Media Portrayals of Nursing 2011

  1. Eli and Bailey on Grey'sGrey's Anatomy -- created by Shonda Rhimes, ABC.

    Despite a few episodes featuring the forceful and skilled nurse Eli, perhaps the best nurse character the popular drama has had, the show eventually dismissed Eli as unworthy of his physician girlfriend and went back to ignoring nurses, while the many heroic physician characters regularly performed critical tasks that nurses do in real life.

  2. Kaiser Permanente, Squishy Heart Radio Ad, May.

    KaiserThe large hospital group exploited the angel stereotype with a 60-second radio ad for Nurses Week that defined nurses solely by their "colossal" "capacity to care" and their "gargantuan heart all squishy with compassion thumping away"--it really said that--but gave no hint that nurses are educated professionals who save lives.

  3. The New Yorker and writers Jerome Groopman and Ken Auletta

    Jerome Groopman Groopman's "A Child in Time," October 24, offered a physician-dominated vision of the NICU, in which nurses in fact generally take the lead, and Ken Auletta's "Changing Times: Jill Abramson takes charge of the Gray Lady," also October 24, suggested that only physicians played any role in the care the New York Times editor got after a bad vehicle accident, continuing the magazine's sad tradition of ignoring nursing in "serious" articles about health care.

  4. Naughty nursesThe naughty nurse -- for countless appearances in all media worldwide throughout the year, including these especially notable examples:
    • Whitney, "Pilot," episode aired September 22, show created by Whitney Cummings, NBC. Whitney jokingly seduces her boyfriend Alex with a naughty nurse outfit, but they end up in the emergency department, where a battleaxe nurse prevents her from staying with the injured Alex;
    • Hooters, for "Hooky Day" ads, March -- Declaring March 17 "National Hooky Day" in honor of the start of the U.S. men's college basketball tournament, the restaurant chain featured photos of naughty nurse "Ashleigh," who wanted to send us a "Doctor's Note" so we could take the day off work to recover from "Basketball Fever" and enjoy a free appetizer;
    • NCIS: Los Angeles, "Personal," February 22, show created by Shane Brennan, CBS -- This episode included unskilled but pretty "Nurse Debbie," the subject of two leering "ready for my sponge bath!"-type comments from a wounded detective;
    • House, "Two Stories," show created by David Shore, February 21, Fox -- This episode presented a nameless female nurse as a sex object in a physician fantasy scene;
    • Silvio Berlusconi, for reports early this year that the Italian media magnate and Prime Minister had hosted parties at which young women were asked to use naughty nurse attire in "lesbian stripper acts";
    • Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Virginia -- For having a midday Halloween show in October entertaining families with naughty nurse dancers, who later walked the park pushing IV poles and serving shots out of "syringes."
  5. Off the Map, created by Jenna Bans, executive producer Shonda Rhimes, ABC.
  6. Off the Map castIn this short-lived series, airing from January to April, heroic physicians alone provided all skilled care in a developing world clinic. In the premiere, a young physician upset about her slow day complained that she had merely "handed out a school nurse!"
  7. Desperate Housewives, ABC, "Putting It Together," episode aired December 4, episode written by Sheila R. Lawrence, show executive producer Marc Cherry. Desperate Housewives
  8. Major character Gaby tried to gain access to the rehabilitation facility where her husband was a resident by flirting with a male nurse, but she failed when the man simply pointed to his chest and said, "Male nurse"--meaning that he was of course gay and so not interested in Gaby.
  9. Nurse robotThe robot nurse -- who appears regularly in media items but doesn't actually exist because robots are not college-educated health professionals.
    • CBS News and TechNewsDaily, "Toyota debuts "robot nurses" to aid the disabled," November 3 -- This item described some machines Toyota is developing to help those with mobility problems--including computerized leg braces--as "robot nurses";
    • The Associated Press, "Robotic Nurse in Development at Purdue," March 18 -- This story repeatedly called an operating room machine that recognizes five hand gestures a "robotic scrub nurse";
    • Michael Millenson, Forbes, "Watson: A Computer So Smart It Can Say, 'Yes, Doctor," February 17 -- This blogger suggested, in an attempted joke, that an IBM computer slated to help in clinical settings put physicians at ease by using "a pleasing, deferential, higher-pitched voice, the experienced and trustworthy nurse who knows her stuff, but also knows her place."

  10. Gifted ManA Gifted Man -- created by Susannah Grant; executive producers Susannah Grant, Neal Baer, Jonathan Demme, Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly; CBS.
    In another fairly short-lived drama, which started airing in September, star neurosurgeon Michael Holt's boutique practice was staffed solely by swaggering physicians, quivering techs, machines, and his no-nonsense assistant, who "used to" be a nurse. Holt volunteered at a poor clinic where physician characters provided all meaningful care, while forearm nurses appeared at the edge of the screen to hold things for the physicians.

  11. Private Practice, created by Shonda Rhimes, ABC.

    Private Practice castThis show continued to revolve around brilliant if troubled physicians, increasingly surgeons, who did everything that mattered in the show's outpatient and hospital settings; nurses typically appeared only to take orders or to perform menial tasks. 

  12. HouseHouse, created by David Shore, Fox.

    This season made us wonder once again who could resist a nursing career after seeing this show, on which nursing is all about following physician commands, messing with IV tubing, holding containers for patients to fill with bodily fluids, bleating helplessly as physicians rush past to save lives, and maybe, if you're hot, being propositioned by physicians. Sign us up!

Pat on the Head Award

Lucky CharmsJohnson & Johnson, 2011 "Campaign for Nursing's Future" television commercials.

The three new ads in J&J's long-running campaign to promote nursing did include a few suggestions of nursing skill, but they focused mainly on the emotional support nurses give patients. One ad featured an authoritative emergency nurse who seemed to believe that lucky charms are what matters most in patient care, and the other two ads, featuring a hospice nurse and a pediatric nurse, were nice but mostly about hand-holding, reinforcing the enduring image of nurses as low-skilled angels.

Slide From Grace Award

Hawthorne Christina, Bobbi, KellyHawthoRNe -- created by John Masius; executive producers Jada Pinkett Smith, Glen Mazzara, Jamie Tarses, John Masius, and John Tinker; TNT.

This show, which aired its third and last season this summer, did present strong, expert nursing leaders and examples of nursing skill to millions of viewers. That continued to some extent this year, but sadly, the show had fewer substantial clinical plotlines, and at times it presented physicians as the real health masters. The formerly gifted nurse Kelly Epson moved from pediatrics to the OR in a long plotline that reduced her to a silly neophyte begging crusty surgeon Brenda Marshall to hire and mentor her, a damaging misportrayal of nursing autonomy and skill.

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