Nurses Week 2014 continues, and I’m celebrating how I best like to celebrate being a nurse…not working! I don’t head back to work until Wednesday, which is a perk of the twelve hour shift thing. But let’s continue with the nursing chatter since since it’s a 24/7/365 job if you work in the right place!
Yesterday we visited one of the dirtier realities of the job – hopefully no one was eating lunch when that post launched, although most nurses wouldn’t have had a problem with it at all. Let’s move onto another dirty reality of the nursing profession…and that would be the reality of nursing as portrayed on TV.
It seems as though people are fascinated enough with the medical world that plenty of television shows have been produced about it, whether fictional or “reality.” Whether it’s because it’s something we can all relate to or just seems like a reality just beyond the reach of most people, medical dramas seem to be here to stay.
One of my favorite shows growing up was ER, and it remains one of the few shows I’ve seen every single episode of. It’s been a long while since I’ve seen an episode, but I do remember it being a very doctor-driven show that had a few nurses in the main character mix. The show seemed to portray nurses as competent and sometimes even as people who contributed ideas to patient care! Of course, one nurse did decide to fulfill her need for higher education by going to medical school, so there’s that. Overall, ER has both been praised and criticized for its portrayal of nurses, and some people have gone as far as to blame it for the nursing shortage.
In my opinion, that is going a bit too far and other shows are far worse in their portrayal or neglect of portrayal of nurses. Let’s continue on. The ever popular Grey’s Anatomy, which I have seen maybe one episode of, is often at the hands of nursing associations for not only how it does not use nurses on the show, but as a result of the derogatory comments made by the physicians of the show. At one point, a one doctor calls an intern another doctor a nurse, meant as an insult. Another time, a physician is instructed to look through stool samples to find swallowed Monopoly pieces, to which she asks, “Isn’t this a nurse’s job?” (So is most of the stuff you do, btw.) Outside of direct comments, nurses are rarely present on the show other than to act as a love interest or to give trouble to the hospital in the form of a nursing strike.
Not to mention one doctor defending “McDreamy” because all the nurses who slept with him (and then he didn’t call him back) knew they were getting involved with a player. But let’s just forget that and move on because he’s a doctor with lives to save. Duhhhh.
However, at least Grey’s Anatomy recognizes the presence of nurses, while the show House seems to have completely forgotten. A team of doctors roams around the hospital doing all sorts of tasks that a nurse would mostly do without a nurse in sight except for maybe a silent passing the background. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Luckily, these are medical-focused shows. A few nurse-focused shows came up over the years, although none really seemed to have the staying power of the doctor shows. Even these have a tendency to give nurses a twist. Nurse Jackie, known for her outspoken voice and patient advocacy, had a pain killer problem and slept around at the hospital. The lead character in Mercy struggled with PTSD after serving in Iraq, where she also happened to learn some awesome nursing skills. Nurses are generally voted as one of the most ethical and responsible professions, yet most television shows would not back this up. (I have heard good things about Call the Midwife, but I have not seen it myself.)
Now, I completely understand that these shows are fictional and are not meant to the best representation of the hospital setting. However, many “reality” shows have been produced to attempt to show the world what happens in the lives of doctors and nurses. Let’s start with one near and dear to my heart (for reasons I’ll let you figure out on your own, if you haven’t already), NY Med. Before the release of this season, I had seen previous works by this series, such as Hopkins and Boston Med. The crew films hospitals, mainly in the emergency room and areas such as oncology, heart surgery, or brain surgery (this is where you get the stories people want to hear). They’re very good at presenting real stories, such as a patient who gets mad because you can’t get them Cheerios or a little old lady (that’s a real medical term) who doesn’t think a broken leg is really that big of a deal. They show nurses do real nursing work – IVs, comforting patients/families, giving medications, monitoring vital signs, working together with the team.
My biggest gripe about the show is how it perpetuates the world’s view of nurses as some sort of sex symbol. The nurses got hit on, an exboyfriend comes into the ER, a patient comes back to ask out his nurse, and every nurse talks about being single or the tough times in their relationships. One episode even did a full body pan of one of the nurses laying on the beach in a bikini. (I almost threw something at the TV when I saw that.) Dr. Oz (don’t even get me started…) did a follow up with the nurses of NY Med, and the first segment completely focused on the relationship status of each of the three nurses on the show. Can we please focus on nurses as more than women who are just looking for love?
If you want to take this about seven steps further, we can move onto the show Scrubbing In, which MTV put on last fall. The idea was to follow travel nurses as they take on an assignment in California. The show struck such a chord with nurses that the American Nurses Association wrote letters to MTV requesting them to re-edit the show or stop showing it at all. I watched in embarrassment as the characters weren’t even licensed to work in the state of California, as they partied and argued non-stop. Bikinis, spray tans, alcohol. Very little time was actually spent in the hospital, and even if it was, the nurses fumbled around practicing IVs and talking about hot doctors.
Now you may wonder – what’s the big deal? Isn’t it just TV? The problem is that most people have very little interaction with the health field, so what is shown on TV and in movies is what they may believe to be the reality of health care. If nurses are shown as “helpers” who silently follow doctors’ orders, why would someone in the hospital for the first time trust them for their educated opinions? If television keeps portraying nurses as worried about their relationship while walking around in bikinis, aren’t people going to continue to view nurses as sexy helpers/naughty nurses instead of smart people in charge of monitoring and providing their care? And if television continues to present nursing in a negative light, such as “Isn’t that a nurse’s job?” or “She’s just the nurse,” why would someone considering the profession feel proud to work towards that? Doctors are placed on a pedestal on television, while nurses are treated as women (not men because TV mostly hasn’t caught up with the idea of a male nurse) with pretty hair who do what the doctor says.
As anyone who has been in the hospital can attest to, what is shown on TV is far from reality. We joke on the burn unit that if you get burned, you don’t want a doctor, you want a good burn nurse. We provide your wound care, we monitor your pain, what you’re eating, how much you’re going to the bathroom. (That wound care and nutrition is what really is going to help you!) On any unit, you may see the doctor for a only few minutes per day (this is often one of the biggest complaints about the hospital). The truth is that I may have no idea who your doctor is other than “whatever intern is holding the neurosurgery pager” and I most likely have never met your attending. While I will never discredit the work and knowledge of doctors, most of the work outside of the operating room/other specialty areas is performed by nurses. We monitor all sorts of things from vital signs to neurological checks to if you urinated within eight hours after your Foley catheter was removed. We know what color your sputum is and if you’re nervous to go home because you live alone and don’t think you can care for yourself.
Although nurses and doctors are supposed to work together as a health care team (that’s another post for another day…), we work separately as well. Doctors are not the bosses of nurses. Nurses work under their own license and serve as another safety check for patients. At my hospital, we’re not even hired under the same entity – nurses are hired by the hospital and doctors are hired by the medical college. We have our own managers and our own leadership. Nurses are not doctor-helpers – we’re autonomous college-educated health care workers.
Portraying nurses as helpers who do not think for themselves and marketing nursing tasks as too lowly for doctors to do is bad for the profession and bad for nursing advocacy. Short staffing, burnout, and turnover – all which contribute to the nursing shortage – may be affected by the image of nurses. If people aren’t aware of the role nurses play in patient care and safety, why would funding be increasing for it? If people continue to say, “You’re too smart to be a nurse, you should be a doctor,” the nursing profession will lose out on those smart minds needed at the bedside. The media is very powerful in shaping people’s opinions of just about everything, nursing included. I urge people to consider the portrayal of nurses in the media in comparison to their own experience with the health care field.
Nurses – How do you feel we’re portrayed in the media? Do you think it affects our profession?
Non-nurses – What’s your opinion? How have TV shows shaped your opinion of health care?