There has been a lot of discussion about the image of nursing in the media lately – why all the buzz? Well, on Thursday, October 24, MTV aired its new reality show Scrubbing In, which follows a group of 20-something travel nurses in Southern California. Based on the trailer, in which these nurses are shown with a heavy focus on looking attractive, partying, and being “hell raisers”, many nursing organizations launched campaigns to convince MTV Executives that the show should be cancelled for its unfair portrayal of nurses (most of these petitions occurred before the show had aired even one episode). But this is the network that brought us Jersey Shore, Teen Mom and the Real World series - did we really think they’d produce a high-level documentary or drama series on the nursing profession?
The issue is bigger than this one show. Every profession is dissatisfied with its portrayal in the media – because it’s difficult to show the intricacies of a multifaceted and complex profession in a cursory manner such as television. Nurses are no different. A quick Wikipedia search produces a list of more than 160 fictional nurses - from the battle-axe Nurse Ratched to the invisible (read: non-existent) nurses of House, to those who are portrayed as mere aides to the godlike specialists of Grey’s Anatomy and ER.
And then there’s Nurse Jackie, the lead in a TV drama series, condemned for her drug abuse and relationship issues by many nursing organizations, long before any episodes ran. However, as the Truth About Nursing notes, “Jackie turned out to be arguably the strongest and the most skilled nurse ever depicted on serial U.S. television.” The series portrays her courage in standing up to the powerful professional groups and organizations that threaten safe and equitable care. As the Truth About Nursing concludes, “these are vital messages to increase public understanding of nursing and funding for nursing practice, education, research and residencies.”
Although I didn’t live here at the time, I’m familiar with the campaign that occurred here in B.C. in September 2004, when Radio Station Z95.3 broadcast a TV ad depicting a group of nurses wearing skimpy outfits, dancing and singing in a Britney-Spears style music video around a hospital nursing station, until an elderly patient calls out: "It's time for my sponge bath." The station agreed to remove the ad after the BCNU had its members write in and complain. The Union deserves a lot of credit for spearheading and pursuing that campaign until the images were off the air.
This brings up a lot of questions: What do these portrayals mean for nurses? How has pop culture influenced the way the public perceives what we do? How has it influenced how we view our own work and our profession? Are negative images of nurses on TV more than just entertainment? Do these portrayals affect real nurses and their patients?
We are in an era of nursing shortages, healthcare cutbacks, and regulatory changes. How scary it is to think that the real skills that nurses possess as clinicians, teachers, researchers and administrators could be overshadowed by these inaccurate and incomplete depictions of who we are and what we do.
Television shows and ads like this should cause us to pause as professionals. They should cause us to question how our profession is portrayed, and whether the ‘naughty nurse’ imagery is damaging public perception about our work. Truth About Nursing notes that those who have actually studied the effects of media products, including the public health community, believe these portrayals do shape public attitudes and actions.
Rather than hand-wringing, let’s start an honest, open discussion about the deep-rooted stereotypes of nurses that are so prevalent in our society. We need to think about whether these portrayals are damaging the relationships we as a profession build with the public, clients, and other professionals. If they are, what can we do to change the perception? Are we reacting to the right things? What do we need to change about how we present our profession to the world?
One of the barriers I perceive in helping to change this is our strict standard of privacy and anonymity. Yes, you read that right. We as nurses are some of the staunchest defenders of confidentiality - and we can’t easily brag about the details of our daily examples of nursing interventions that make a difference to patients and families across the breadth of the continuum of care. Our challenge is to convey the essence of our complex professional roles through composite stories and scenarios, while abiding by our Code of Ethics.
Stereotypes and inaccurate perceptions often arise out of mystery. They fill in knowledge gaps where they exist. For many people, it is still a mystery what nurses do in our modern health care settings. If we were more intentional and less anonymous about our contributions to patient care and safety (while still protecting patient confidentiality), we might remove some of the mystery and prompt more accurate appraisals of nursing’s value and the key roles we play as part of the health care team/system
I think, though, that there are many things that nurses can do to balance and counteract the stereotypes and portrayals. We can enhance the public’s trust in us by standing together for safe client care in all situations, advocate for responsible stewardship of our publicly funded healthcare resources, use our knowledge to educate clients at every suitable opportunity and ensure that the profession stays strong long into the future by developing and fostering leaders.
Be proud that the care you give is exemplary, ethical and safe – and share that with others.
Nurses are among the most trusted professionals in Canada (fourth - a small step behind firefighters, EMT’s and pharmacists) for a reason. We are trusted because we are professional, we are competent, we are skilled, and we are caring. And despite decades of stupid stereotypes, we are still one of the most respected professions on the planet.
Beat that, MTV!
After completing her BScN at McMaster University, Lori started her career at VCH in 2005. Experiences in surgical care, intensive care, harm reduction, and Vancouver's downtown east side have shaped her passion to promote nursing practice. Her diverse practice areas give her a broad view of the role of nursing in BC and of the health-care system. Currently working as clinical educator/resource nurse in the Vancouver Professional Practice department with VCH gives her an excellent vantage point to promote best practice, innovation, integration of technology, and enhance the knowledge base of nurses in Vancouver. A strong team player, Lori is actively involved with interdisciplinary groups in both project and committee work at VCH.