May 6, 2011
TV vs. real-life nursing: Seattle RNs debunk myths about their profession
Special to NWjobs
Nurses are educated, autonomous and critical to our health-care system. Yet television shows constantly reinforce antiquated stereotypes, marginalizing the profession.
In honor of National Nurses Week, several Seattle nurses clear up the five TV myths that drive them most crazy.
Myth: Doctors do all the work.
“House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” are TV’s most-watched medical dramas, regularly landing in Nielsen’s top 20. But according to real-life nurses, both shows perpetuate the idea that doctors do everything.
“Viewers are always seeing physicians perform tasks they rarely would in real life,” says Cindy Jo Allen, an assistant nurse manager at Virginia Mason Medical Center.
Whenever she watches either program, “I notice that they have doctors start the IVs and handle wound care,” she says. “Even in emergency situations, physicians handle mainly the highly technical stuff. Nurses are who provide a lot of the actual care.”
Others wonder why nurses are practically invisible on both of these dramas.
“Nurses are who just about every patient will interact with the most during any medical visit,” says Paula Minton-Foltz, assistant administrator of patient care services at Harborview Medical Center.
Janet Lau, a nurse in Virginia Mason’s critical care unit, also says that both shows severely underutilize nurses.
“On ‘House,’ it’s always the doctors who are with the patients when they suffer a cardiac or respiratory arrest and start CPR and electric shocks,” Lau says. “In reality, since nurses are always at the bedside, they are the ones to call the code and initiate life-saving treatment.”
Myth: Nurses work only in hospitals.
Most medical shows take place in hospitals, so it can be easy for viewers to forget that nurses work in many settings. “Private Practice” is one of the few TV shows to depict a non-hospital setting. It is also one of the few to feature a nurse with an advanced degree: Dell Parker.
“I appreciate that ‘Private Practice’ dipped its toes into the advanced-degree options nurses have,” says Jennifer Graves, a Swedish Hospital nurse executive. “Parker was articulate and shown making medical decisions.”
Nonetheless, “Private Practice” as a whole is not very realistic, Graves says. “The practice seems to be made up of only physicians. Supporting staff is never shown,” she says. And after Parker’s death in last season’s finale, the practice has gone without a nurse entirely.
National Nurses Week
When: Celebrated annually from May 6 (National Nurses Day) through May 12 (Florence Nightingale’s birthday)
2011 theme: Nurses Trusted to Care
By the numbers: The 31,230 RNs in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area earned an annual median wage of $76,380 in 2009.
Sources: American Nurses Association, Bureau of Labor Statistics
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 60 percent of nurses work in hospitals, 8 percent in doctors’ offices, 5 percent in homes, and the rest in settings such as government agencies and educational services.
Myth: Nurses are handmaidens.
When it comes to depicting nurses as subservient, local nurses cite “Grey’s Anatomy” as a frequent offender.
In an episode last season, Dr. Derek Shepherd asks resident Lexie Grey to monitor his condition while he performs a time-consuming surgery. When Lexie tells fellow resident Avery Jackson that she’ll basically be Dr. Shepherd’s doctor, Avery disagrees and condescendingly tells her, “Have fun playing nurse.”
Unfortunately, portraying nurses as subordinates is nothing new at the fictional hospital of Seattle Grace. Even in its premiere episode, the term “nurse” was used more than once as an insult.
Resident Meredith Grey (Lexie’s older sister) gets lost on her first day while wheeling around a patient. Annoyed, the patient tells Meredith that when she recently sprained her ankle, “I didn’t get stuck with someone this clueless and that was, like, a nurse.”
Later, Meredith is called a nurse again, this time by resident Alex Karev after she questions his diagnosis. “Did you just call me a nurse?” Meredith asks, offended. “If the white cap fits,” Alex responds.
Nursing is not defended as being vital in any of these examples. “In reality, there is a lot of teamwork between physicians and nurses,” Minton-Foltz says. “Nurses are very skilled, educated and integral.”
Graves points to Jada Pinkett Smith’s “HawthoRNe” character as a more accurate depiction of the relationship between nurses and doctors.
“It shows that nurses aren’t in the background,” Graves says. “They are collaborators. And while not perfect, ‘HawthoRNe’ shows nurses and physicians participating in a dialogue.”
Myth: Nurses wish they were doctors.
Often nursing is portrayed as more of a consolation prize than a conscious career choice.
“Studying nursing and medicine are two different things,” says Cindy Sayre, University of Washington Medical Center’s director of professional practice and patient and family centered care. “It’s not consistent with my experience that nurses wanted to be doctors. It’s not a second choice.”
Abby Lockhart, one of the best-remembered nurses from “ER,” would make viewers think otherwise. She falls back on nursing after she’s unable to complete medical school. As time passes, Abby seems to find nursing rewarding. But ultimately, the writers send her back to med school and she becomes a doctor.
Lau, a graduate nursing student at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, remembers telling a patient that she was back in school. He asked, “Are you going to be a doctor?”
Lau says she was slightly offended by the question.
“Earlier he praised me for taking such good care of him,” she says. “He realized I was smart and efficient. Does that mean I was too good to simply be a nurse?”
To help right some of the misconceptions many people have about nursing, Lau says she wishes that the media would show more of the opportunities available to nurses, including nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists.
Myth: Nurses are wrapped up in their personal lives.
“Medical shows are more concerned with the saga of the characters’ personal lives than the actual profession,” Minton-Foltz says.
Illustrating this point, Sayre could recall only one time a Seattle Grace nurse received a memorable story arc. But Olivia Harper’s storyline didn’t involve her demonstrating any medical skill or knowledge. Instead, she flirted with a physician and gave him syphilis.
Some nurses also take issue with “Nurse Jackie” for related reasons. Even though the show portrays nurses as assertive main characters, the fact that Jackie spends so much time fixated on getting drugs concerns Graves.
“Jackie’s completely unethical and doesn’t put a positive light on the profession,” Graves says. “It’s another example of the patients being peripheral compared with personal issues like gossiping and flirting.”
Images like these can shape the general opinion of the profession. Not long after she became a nurse, Allen’s sister asked her, “Don’t you just sit around the nurses station chatting and occasionally take vitals?”
Though Allen was hurt by the comment, she also used it to shed some light on the realities of nursing.
“If someone hasn’t had much experience with nurses,” Allen says, “then the media’s misrepresentations can have an actual effect on their perception.”
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