From the staff development bookshelf: Impact of media representation of nurses

Staff Development Weekly: Insight on Evidence-Based Practice in Education, June 28, 2012

When looking at the media representation of nurses, it is clear that the nurse rarely is portrayed accurately. From television dramas and comedies to movies and beyond, negative stereotypes of nurses undermine our credibility and create confusion about the real role and contribution of the professional nurse. A brief overview of the various misperceptions of nursing include the following:

Angel of mercy - Nurses are sometimes represented as selfless, caring individuals who subjugate their own needs to those they serve. This image may be helped along by the belief that nurses have a "calling" to the profession. This image tells only a part of the story, undermining the important sentinel role of the nurse, who is educated in science and working to save lives, prevent complications, and promote positive patient outcomes.

Naughty nurse - An image of the nurse in a short miniskirt with her blouse unbuttoned and cleavage exposed is another beloved media stereotype. The "naughty nurse" is often portrayed as "ditzy" as well, undermining the requirements for nurses to be educated in the sciences and to think critically. This image undermines the credibility of nursing as a serious profession, as well as the credibility of each individual nurse.

Nurse Ratched - A prominent character from the Academy Award-winning movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Nurse Ratched was a sadistic psychiatric nurse who abused her professional power to break the will of a group of patients on a psychiatric unit. For many years since this 1975 movie, uttering the name of Nurse Ratched conjures up a controlling, manipulative individual. Professional nursing is built on the ability to establish a trusting relationship with our patients. Any negative stereotype that undermines the ability to establish trust undermines our profession.

Handmaiden -
The handmaiden stereotype embraces only the dependent role of the registered nurse. This image of the traditional nurse involves an overemphasis on following doctors' orders.  The reality is that professional nurses cannot possibly care for their patients effectively without exercising the independent functions of their role. This inaccurate portrayal of both the nurse and the physician undermines the credibility of both professional groups, and creates confusion for the public.

Book excerpt adapted from The Image of Nursing: Perspectives on Shaping, Empowering, and Elevating the Nursing Profession by Kathleen Bartholomew, RC, RN, MN, and Shelley Cohen, RN, BS, CEN.

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