Nursing campaigns featuring smiling staff holding cut out hearts are undermining the way society views nurses, a veteran US health journalist and writer has warned.
Suzanne Gordon said that the typical photograph used by organisations to celebrate the profession was all about heart rather than brain.
“Your caring work which is critical, is brain work. Your images must match that”
Ms Gordon, who is the author of From Silence to Voice: What Nurses Know and Must Communicate to the Public, was addressing delegates at the Queen’s Nursing Institute.
She showed slides of nursing campaigns from around the world, including the Royal College of Nursing’s 2018 nurses’ day campaign featuring nurses with heart badges.
“With all due respect to the nurses, who just look silly…nursing is brain work. Your caring work which is critical, is brain work.” She said: “Your images must match that.”
Too many campaigns were childish or overly sentimental, she said. She highlighted a New Zealand campaign featuring children’s cut outs, a white heart used by the International Council of Nurses and an RCN cartoon strip as examples.
“I’m against sentimentalised caring – caring that’s depicted as an innately female trait as opposed to caring as a skill,” she noted.
“I believe not enough individual nurses are speaking up. It’s so important for nurses to speak up”
Language also mattered in how nurses were perceived, highlighted Ms Gordon in her talk at the QNI’s annual conference on Monday.
Nurses were still “saddled” by terms like “angels” – a hangover from nursing’s religious beginnings, she said.
In addition, she said that, too often, abstract words were used that did not help public understanding of the work nurses did.
She mentioned the RCN campaign this year that used the terms “modern” and “dynamic”. “Nursing has always been modern and dynamic. I really object to some of these categories,” she said.
It was not just nursing bodies that needed to do better, she told delegates. Media portrayals of healthcare ignored nurses – she pointed to TV hospital dramas in the US where a diverse range of doctors were shown but “very few nurses”.
Ms Gordon, who has also written When Chicken Soup Isn’t Enough: Stories of Nurses Standing Up for Themselves, Their Patients, and Their Profession, said it was time for nurses to be less deferential.
“I believe not enough individual nurses are speaking up,” she said. “It’s so important for nurses to speak up. And so difficult.”
She added: “One of the things I discovered, was that nurses never tell their story.”
“I think nurses often confuse liking with respect. Respect is what gets people to listen”
Part of the reason for nurses’ deference was they mixed up being liked with being respected, she said.
“You can like someone without respecting them. I think nurses often confuse liking with respect,” she said. “Respect is what gets people to listen.”
She said that nurses should not use phrases like “I’m sorry to bother you” to doctors, as it was part of their job to co-ordinate with medical staff. And she urged nurses to give their surname when first introducing themselves to patients.
“Professionals have last names. Here and in the States nurses have given up their surnames,” she said.
Ms Gordon said research showed that the public trusted nurses, while at the same time not understanding what nurses do.
“Who wants to be trusted because they’re sweet and nice? Or d’you want to be trusted because what you do is save people’s lives, preventing a horrible thing from happening to them,” he asked.
“As nurses, we don’t always clearly articulate the contribution we make”
She noted that it threw down a challenge to the profession – how to better get across what they do to the public and the media.
She said there were crucial ways of doing this – talking in a concrete, detailed way about what you do in your job, rather than falling back on abstract terms or general clichés about nursing.
This also related to campaigning, she added. For example, she praised a poster showing a nurse looking serious while treating a patient.
She noted that the slogan said: “Do you know how to effectively manage this patient’s pain? We do. We’re registered nurses.”
In response, Stephanie Aiken, RCN associate director of nursing, said: “I was in the audience at the speech, and it provided plenty of food for thought.
Professor Linda Aiken
She said: “Suzanne Gordon used images from a whole range of organisations and made many valid points about how the profession presents itself.
“As nurses, we don’t always clearly articulate the contribution we make, and exactly what we do that makes a difference,” she said.
“At the RCN, we will redouble our efforts to bust the stereotypes and myths around nursing, particularly the idea of a gendered profession,” said Ms Aiken.
She added: “We’re also partners in the NHS England campaign to promote a more contemporary image of nursing”.
A spokeswoman for the RCN confirmed that for nurses’ day 2019 the college has taken on board the feedback about particular materials.