Nursing as Portrayed on Television: Dispelling Myth from Reality

If you’ve been around for a while, you know that I haven’t been shy about my opinions regarding medical television shows and their portrayal of nurses. I’ve even been told that I take these shows “too seriously”. And while I’ve learned not to nitpick about accuracy or realism, I still think popular culture does nurses a tremendous disservice. I’m not the only one, either. 

Which is why I’m delighted to bring you this guest post from Kathryn Norcutt, a registered nurse and writer, who is also troubled about the state of medical television and its nursing imagery. Kathryn writes for RNnetwork, which specializes in travel nursing jobs. I am so pleased to have her with us today. ~Nurse Teeny

We’re probably all guilty of watching medical television series, and can recognize many of those familiar faces as they grace our living rooms during their weekly time slots.  Shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER” are still wildly popular with both medical and nonmedical audiences alike and seem to maintain an almost cult following in their fan base.

But despite their pop culture status, it still seems that television has historically given full glory to those actors who portray surgeons and physicians as larger than life rather than the somewhat cardboard nurse character who tends to be relegated to menial tasks.  Most nurses might agree that television is probably most likely responsible for perpetuating the ‘Nightingale’ myth, that nurses are dispensable, interchangeable tools that either fade into the background, handing over instruments like mindless automatons during intense medical procedures, or are standing in awe of the doctors who swoop in, god-like, to save the day.  Even in our modern age it seems hard to shed these stereotypes.  But truth be told, nurses are the providers with whom patients spend more time, who perform more of the handholding and comforting roles, who are responsible for administering medicines and IVs, changing, cleaning. Nurses generally will leave a first and last impression upon the patient.  A crucial role, indeed.

What has become even more detrimental are shows like Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” whose main character’s unscrupulous behavior is hidden behind her scrubs. Her drug abuse and questionable ethics are exposed to the audience but are not seen by her unwitting patients who remain under her dubious care.  “Foul and unfair” has been the battle-cry of nurses to such a portrayal. As a matter of fact, the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) banded together to request that Showtime executives add a disclaimer informing the audience that the character of nurse Jackie is in fact, ‘an aberration’, as she continuously violates the Nursing Code of Ethics. She offers an egregious mischaracterization of nurses, depicting a nurse as someone devoid of the morals that are woven into the very fabric of nursing.

It seems that we in the nursing field have had to fight a hard battle to win respect among not only the medical profession, but even in popular culture.   Nurses try to dismiss comments from those who assume they chose nursing because they failed to meet the high standards of medical school and somehow fell into nursing as a back-up plan.   What most people do not realize is that nursing is a separate and critical piece of the healthcare profession, one that works in conjunction with doctors and provides great job satisfaction and security.  Professional options are wide-reaching and specialized, from travel nursing to emergency care, from pediatrics to geriatrics, often offering flexible, even part-time, hours.

Perhaps someday Hollywood will take notice of the exciting and interesting side of nursing and create a series that portrays nurses for who they really are. Who knows, maybe someday “Jersey Shore” can be replaced with “Jersey Shore University Medical Center”?

Kathryn Norcutt has been an active member of the health care community for over 20 years.  During her time as a nurse, she has helped people from all walks of life and ages.  Now, Kathryn leads a much less hectic life and devotes most of her free time to writing for RNnetwork, a site specializing in  travel nursing jobs.

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