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'There is an issue in how society still views nurses and nursing'


I was sitting at home on Friday evening easing into the May bank holiday weekend when I noticed something happening on Twitter that immediately grabbed my attention.

As the tweets highlighting outrage and disbelief started to pile up, I also started to get direct messages sent to me about the case of runner and nurse Jessica Anderson.

She had recently finished the London Marathon in a time of 3:08:22 while wearing her work scrubs, which was faster than the previous record for someone wearing a nurses’ uniform of 3:08:54.

The problem was that her modern uniform was out of step with the rules set by Guinness World Records on running in fancy dress as a ‘nurse’.

Unfortunately, by stipulating that one had to wear an actual dress, the organisation that sets the rules on record breakers was itself supporting an outdated, sexist cliché of the image of nursing.

Somewhat unbelievably, it was viewed as acceptable for men to dress up as female nurses but not for female nurses to dress up as actual nurses. Doctors running in fancy dress as doctors were apparently allowed to wear scrubs, regardless of gender.

The result was that students and nurses took to Twitter with a vengeance. Nursing Times student editor Craig Davidson started a social media campaign called #WhatNursesWear and the chief nursing officers of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all posted pictures of themselves in scrubs.

To be fair to GWR, it spotted the PR disaster unfolding on social media and agreed to review the situation, which it thankfully did in record breaking time compared to how long it normally takes for an organisation to review guidelines on something.

On Tuesday, GWR agreed that its guidelines for the fastest marathon wearing a nurse’s uniform were “outdated, incorrect and reflected a stereotype we do not in any way wish to perpetuate”. And said it was awarding Ms Anderson the Guinness World Records title after all and that it would be introducing guidelines to reflect “clothes worn by nurses in the UK and around the world”.

While uniforms and what people wear to represent nurses may seem trivial to some, I beg to differ. The problem I fear is that the story neatly encapsulates a wider issue of how society still views nurses and nursing.

I don’t think I’m being too po-faced about it; I think there is a large group of people who are still living in a “Carry On…” world, rather than one with the varied and complex skills of nursing today. I find it very disappointing, having written about nursing for well over a decade now. I hope I’m wrong but I suspect I am not; at least not entirely.

Hopefully some good for nursing’s profile will come out of Ms Anderson’s story, which was revealed by  and picked up by most of the national media. It also showed that change can be achieved by concerted action. This should be remembered, given the significant opportunities to burn away the tired old clichés about nursing that are on the horizon.

We are fast approaching the centenary of the introduction of UK legislation on nurse registration – a milestone in its professional history – and 2020 has been declared the Year of the Nurse by the World Health Organization.

These events represent a genuine opportunity to recalibrate how nurses and nursing is viewed in the UK and around the globe. If you think about it, surely the sky is the limit for change when all the nurses in the world pull together with the same aim.


Readers' comments (3)

  • It appears that one may wear almost anything now and call oneself a Nurse. Further, some are upset that some persons are called Nurses though not on the Register. In absence of a universal definition Guinness are surely able to use their own.

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  • Alison Cann

    We don't help ourselves - the terms 'Matron' and 'Sister' should be obsolete, yet as a profession we embrace them. Ridiculous. I've been a nurse for 30 years and I have always thought this - so sad that we're still perpetuating the sexism.

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  • Excellent points noted. Also very disapointed by the diatribe by others with degrees who feel that nurses shouldn't have degrees. The views espoused are normally by middle class degree educated professionals who probably have a view of what nursing is. Nursing and nurses need to use this opportunity to define the profession of nursing, protect the title and hold the government to account on safe staffing.
    For too long a few have been championing and this voice needs to be increased.
    I look forward to seeing the impact of the power duo Anne Marie Rafferty and Yvonne Coghill.

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