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The image of nursing: How to combat negative stereotypes

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Is it any wonder nurses are continually undermined when their portrayal in the media is so belittling? Sandy Summers examines the image they are given and how to combat negative stereotypes

Would you like to be a “naughty nurse”?

How about an low-skilled handmaiden who specialises in saying “yes, doctor!”?

The troubled image of nursing has a real effect on every nurse and nursing student. That’s because the stereotypes that have long plagued the profession undermine real nurses’ claims to adequate resources for clinical practice, education, and research.

You know that nursing is an exciting modern health profession for intelligent, caring men and women. You know that nursing has its own scientific basis and scope of practice, and that skilled nurses save lives and improve patient outcomes every day.

But many do not know, and they make decisions accordingly. In 2008, nursing scholars at Dundee University found that television images of nurses as “brainless, sex mad bimbos” were discouraging academically advanced primary school students from pursuing the profession.

Today, many nurses struggle with deadly under-staffing. In many places, nursing salaries do not reflect the training, skills, and effort it takes to provide high quality nursing care. The global nursing shortage is a public health crisis.

Many of these problems have their roots in undervaluation of nursing. And the influential mass media reinforces these popular attitudes.

Sometimes the media conveys something of what nurses really do. Recent BBC reports have described nursing innovations. The Royal College of Nursing advocates strongly for the profession. Even the drama Nurse Jackie, despite some ethical issues, presents strong, highly skilled nurses.

But far more often, the media presents a physician-centric world in which nurses are servants or sex objects. Earlier this year, a West Midlands bus company used a large naughty nurse ad, with the tag line “Ooooh matron!”, to promote its route to the hospital.

The popular dramas House and Grey’s Anatomy together have about 20 physician characters, but not one nurse. The physician characters do many exciting things that nurses do in real life, from defibrillation to psychosocial care. And the few nurses who appear are meek subordinates.

What can we do?

We must help everyone understand what nurses really do for patients. Try to give your family, friends, and colleagues an accurate impression of nursing. Advocate for the profession in the media. Tell those who craft media content and public policy what nursing is really all about.

Only an understanding of the true value of nursing will ensure that qualified, caring nurses are there when we need them

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