A recent study by Australian nursing professor David Stanley in the Journal of Advanced Nursing suggests that today's films "offer a broader, deeper" portrayal of nursing that's more "authentic," with fewer stereotypical depictions than in the past. (For a summary of the study, see Clinical Rounds on page 25 of this issue.)
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But films like Angels in America and Wit, where autonomous, nuanced nurses save and improve patients' lives, are extremely rare. Usually when films and television aren't ignoring nurses, they're stereotyping them.
Meet the Fockers depicted nurses as kind and sweet but inhabiting a 9th-place career, like the film's hero. Akeelah and the Bee and Gracie both celebrated promising girls who, unlike their bitter mothers, didn't have to settle for the dead-end job of nursing. Most healthcare depicted on the screen, whether the wide screen or TV, present physicians, not nurses, doing nursing work.
This skewed and widespread perception-this disrespect-fuels the undervaluation of nursing. Undervaluation leads to lack of funding for nursing practice, education, and research. To fix the global nursing shortage we need funding for nursing. Billions are spent to alleviate disease, but relatively little goes to strengthen a nursing infrastructure that could prevent disease in the first place.
To turn this dire situation around, nurses must advocate for their profession. How? The Center for Nursing Advocacy's Web site (http://www.nursingadvocacy.org/action) and our new book describe ways in which nurses can speak up to help change our profession's public image. Educated as we are to communicate knowledge to lay people, we're well suited to educate the public and the media. Call your local health reporters and offer to serve as an expert source. Write letters to the editor. Create your own Web site or blog. Host a health radio show. Talk to journalists about what you do. (HIPAA allows this!!)
Also consider how you present yourself to your patients. Do cartoon-patterned scrubs convey professional authority? Try "nursing out loud": Describe to your patients and their families what you're doing and why. As you teach them about their health, you'll also educate them about what nurses know and do.
Above all, be persistent. Change will happen, but not overnight.
It's time to show the world what nurses really do. Don't let demeaning media portrayals have the last word. Speak out to improve the image of nursing and strengthen the profession.
Sandy Summers, RN, MPH, MSN
Executive Director, Center for Nursing Advocacy