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'It's never been more important to counter negative nursing stereotypes'


How much are we promoting positive images of nursing?

At an event last week, I met with several chief nurses and senior nursing leads who were enthusiastic about nursing careers. They felt strongly that this was still a profession that could appeal because of its ability to make a difference, but that only negative messages about it were filtering through to the public.

It would be foolish to suggest that anything other than the government’s decision to remove the bursary for student nurses and midwives is responsible for the sharp downturn in the number of applications for nursing degrees. That said, if we are failing to grow our own nurses on these shores while also losing overseas nurses who are worried about their job security in a post-Brexit Britain, something different needs to happen.

Maybe it is not only about how nurses are treated, but also about how the profession presents itself in the media? There is much to celebrate in nursing – we see it all the time at the Nursing Times Awards and Student Nursing Times Awards. And yet so little of the achievements and influence of nursing is written about or shown to the public.

“Most images of nursing still depict the role as that of doctors’ handmaiden”

Nurses have a large degree of autonomy, making decisions about patients to see them get better, help them live their lives more fully, or help them end their lives well. Yet most images of nursing still depict the role as that of doctors’ handmaiden. Things have changed but perceptions have not kept pace.

I have heard retired nurses talking about how much better nursing was 20 or 30 years ago, when there were no hospital-acquired infections and no pressure ulcers. However, the care environment today, particularly in hospitals but also in the community, is a world apart from what it was in those eras. For example, 20 years ago, patients were not in and out of hospital as quickly as they are now. Wards were full of patients who nowadays would be considered too well to be in bed. And these patients required less nursing care. What puzzles me, though, is why retired nurses, of all people, would denigrate the work of nurses currently working in, let’s face it, pretty tough jobs.

“Former nurses recounting the halcyon days of their careers is not helpful to those currently in the profession”

One of the nurses I spoke to last week explained that they had invited retired nurses to meet their current workforce, in order to help them understand the pressures teams are now under. It was a small but successful PR exercise contributing to spread the idea that nursing is much more complex than it once was, and that former nurses recounting the halcyon days of their careers is not helpful to those currently in the profession. These retired nurses returned to their communities carrying the message that nurses have so much more responsibility, knowledge and experience than they ever did.

The fact that care has changed and that nursing has adapted to respond to new needs surely is an opportunity for nursing to showcase its breadth, depth and influence. Spreading that message would make nursing a more attractive career, I am sure. Of course, more money, a bursary, better benefits and a greater number of nurses working with more respect from the government would all help attract newcomers. But one thing that will definitely put off potential recruits is those in the profession talking it down.

“People are still in awe of nursing and respect the profession”

One of the chief nurses told me last week about a young mum working in a coffee shop who was training to become a nurse. She was prepared to take a cut in her income so she could do this training, because she knew she would end up in a field where she would make more of a difference than just adding soya milk to a latte.

That is a powerful message – people are still in awe of nursing and respect the profession. So whose job is it to educate the media and the public? I believe it is every nurse’s job. It is up you to tell the public and future generations of healthcare professionals that this is still a vocation to be proud of. If you don’t, who will?


Readers' comments (8)

  • I find it staggering that an article about negative stereotypes manages to promote a negative stereotype - yet again. Recently you published an article about 'older nurses' not being fit to practice and here you are again telling us that older nurses go around espousing about 'the good old days'!
    With respect, it is more ageism from a publication that appears to have an agenda to rid the profession of experienced, highly respected and intelligent nurses.
    Only two days ago, I had a conversation about how far nursing has come in the 38 years I have been in it. I discussed the struggles my generation had to influence the changes to put the profession where it is today! It didn't just happen when degrees became the norm, or with 'Project 2000', or any of the others initiatives that have occurred over the years.
    Our 'Code of Practice', the NMC and the place nursing proudly has in the public'thoughts are due to nurses, like myself who believed things could, and should, be better.
    We deserve thanks, Nursing Times, not derision!

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  • I have recently been involved in a case where a (2nd) GP referred a patient to the Emergency Department. He was seen by an Emergency Practitioner, examined thoroughly, given additional medication and sent home with the same diagnosis and advice as the (1st ) GP had made earlier in the day. 10 days later he represented at the Emergency Dept and was admitted.
    The judge held the view that if a GP refers a patient to Hospital that the GP is entitled to expect that the patient will be seen by a doctor and NOT an nurse practitioner or an Advanced Practitioner. He rejected the information about the new roles. The GP (retired) for the Claimant said he would not employNnurse Practitioners.
    This shows that the public does not accept nurses acting as assessors and diagnosing in certain situations.
    Nurses are not respected at all and this is confirmed by their employers and the derisory salaries they get compared to the doctors if they are undertaking the same work. Nursing involves hard manual labour and also involves covering much of the work and responsibility previously held by junior doctors. I do not know why anyone with a degree level education goes near it.
    We nurses know we make a difference but too often at the NMC it can be seen that in spite of errors by others, it is the nurse who takes the blame. They usually stand alone, having lost their job and no support from senior staff. We do not even have the Welfare Service support form the NMC any longer for hearings for those who cannot afford representation. The doctors attending the GMC usually still have their jobs and an army of backers from their profession.
    Our progress has in many cases left nurses high and dry if something goes wrong. This is even more likely with the pressures that we have on staffing levels and appropriate skill mix and no choice but to do the best we can with a full ward or caseload. Nurses rarely speak up and say that they cannot deliver the care to that number or type of patient on the shift. When they do there is often no help or support available.
    Unfortunately they give up and get on with the job, leaving some patients short of an acceptable standard of care.
    It is about time we faced and addressed these problems and recognised this may be why few degree level applicants choose nursing.
    There was always a large drop out after qualifying (I understand up to 30% in the 1960's) and I understand that some of today's leavers have done so with a degree (having accepted the Bursary) and go into other occupations.

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  • Yes, who would want the stress, manual labour, unsocial hours and extreme responsibility that the nurse's role demands today--only an absolute saint. There are far more appealing careers open to caring individuals with a good education--the government needs to look out if it wants to retain sufficient registered nurses in the workforce.

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  • Absolutely agree with the above comments. There are many, many ways in which nurses are let down by a biased system and to blame the opinion of retired nurses is scandalous! I am 60 years old this year. As a student nurse I cared for 3 ventilated patients on a medical ward, alone but with the support of the (newly qualified) staff nurse in charge. This was routine, since we did not have an ICU. Less responsibility, you say? I continue to work in healthcare and provide care to a high standard. Your article was a huge generalization and denigrated the thousands of nurses who have been the back bone of the NHS for many years and who have trained generations of nurses. Shame on you.

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  • Agree. You speak of negative stereotyping, yet this article does precisely that in negatively stereotyping thousands of older nurses. You should be aiming your comments at a media that does little to recognize our skills, at a society that views us as bottom wipers and at a professional body that provides negligible support. These are far more worthy targets than older and retired nurses who have given their working lives to a profession that your article labels as outdated and ill informed. In fact, as a student in the 1970's, my responsibilities far outweighed students of today; I was regularly left in charge of wards; regularly ' specialling' patients on the ward (as above, no ITU or HDU); regularly caring for patients following major surgery. I don't for one minute say that some of this was right, however to make the huge assumption that we had less responsibility is a disgrace and to blame older nurses for the opinion that the public and wider arena has about the nursing profession shows a shocking lack of understanding. Again, shame on you.

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  • I agree with all the above comments. I too have been nursing for 39years. I started my career as an SEN, took time out to have family, worked in nursing homes and went on and did a diploma in Mental health nursing when my children grew up. I like my colleagues have embraced the changes over the years and have adapted The much younger nurses are always pleased to have a more experienced nurse on duty, we seem to compliment each other. I have noticed from more the managerial side there is an element of ageism.

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  • Pussy

    You have got that quite wrong lovey! Having spent the last ten days by my husbands post-op bedside I don't think you have any idea HOW wrong! Very familiar obs as always,many things forgotten including LWMH TTO for me to administer. Pain control was not good,empty IV bags not attended to and all patients unable to sleep as there's was a refusal to move a noisy patient. You say nursing has improved? Wake up and see for yourself the deterioration!

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  • This is an interesting piece. The comments on ageism are justified as this is a generalisation but there is a bigger issue here that I think the editor was remarking on. Anecdotally I find it common for those who are no longer in front line roles to underestimate workload and complexity-this is regardless of age. It is by no means all but I think it common enough in which some in nursing leadership have created a bubble which has tolerated poor working conditions and allowed nursing to be devalued and defined as time filled with tasks-essentially tick box care. This has led to the false assumption that anyone who is nice can do the job without understanding the skill or experience required (which many older nurses have in abundance I imagine!)
    The loss of the bursary and the lack of visibility of the contribution of nursing add to this. The media shapes the ideas of many but the profession tolerates being belittled and does not respond to this for fears of being seen as "elitist".
    We need to attract and importantly retain people. Better working conditions are a key factor otherwise its trying to fill a leaky bucket.

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