We’re Either Boobified or Invisible. Is There Any Hope?

So two television shows demean and devalue nurses. Is there any hope things will ever change?

First, by way of Sean Dent at My Strong Medicine, is this charming example of the naughty nurse:

[Mehmet Oz of the Dr. Oz Show] introduces Angel Williams, and she appears wearing a traditional, short-sleeved white nurses’ dress that falls just above the knee. She also wears a red belt, and carries a nurses’ cap. Despite the impressive weight loss, she has not attained a shape that most people would associate with a traditional naughty nurse model. There is no suggestion that Williams, or anyone else who appears in the segment, actually is a nurse.

Dr. Oz dancingOz asks Williams how she managed to dance away that much weight. She explains that she loves dancing and just decided she would do it while cleaning, cooking, and doing a range of other daily activities. Pressed about what inspired her, she says she had reached a point in her life where she was down and out, and she needed to make some changes.

Angel:  So I did. I started dancing and moving–and watching your show. You know, you’re the doctor that gets us eating right, thinking right, thinking bright. And I decided to apply all those things to my life.

Williams and Oz thank each other. Oz says he hears she’s going to teach him. She starts quietly laughing–apparently at the very notion that he, a celebrity physician, could learn anything from her! Oz says he’s serious, that he does the show in order to learn from how people answer his questions, and from questions they ask that he would never think of asking. So he asks her again to teach him. She asks the audience to stand up and join them, then prepares to lead them in some dancing.

Angel (as she unbuttons the top of her dress to reveal a red bra):  You know, we’re gonna get sexy too, we gotta, you know, be kinda sexy with it. (Now she puts on the nurse’s cap.) Gotta get my hat goin’. So, the first move, Dr. Oz–cause we’re your nurses, we’re gonna keep America moving for you, OK?

Oz:  Oh, I love it.

[via The Truth About Nursing. But read the whole thing.]

“We’re you’re nurses.” Yes, readers, I physically cringed when I read that. But Dr. Oz is pop culture bubblegum. For real contempt for nurses, you need to go to the respectable media. Paul McLean at Medical Ethics and Me:

Missing from the documentary is what should never be missing from this dialogue — the nurse’s viewpoint. Nurses are the Waldo of “Facing Death.” Where are they? The documentary is full of poignant scenes of doctor-patient and doctor-family dialogue, always difficult and sometimes brutally honest, and shines a brilliant light on a problem that, if society doesn’t sort out, money will forceably and inequitably decide. This is the subject underlying the country’s “death panel” insanity, and kudos to Frontline for looking at it rationally and insightfully. Kudos, too, to the doctors and families who’ve put themselves on display in situations that couldn’t be more difficult. Allowing cameras at such a time took extraordinary courage, but is of such great value.


“Facing Death” is invaluable for any med student, for its view into when “doing no harm” gets particularly tricky. And yet, for all the poignant conversation and close-ups on care, nurses are mostly blurred motion and background noise. The one nurse quoted is the daughter of a dying woman at odds with her sister, who happens to be a doctor. The nurse/sister advocates for acceptance and compassionate care; the doctor/sister wants to do what’s required to maintain the parent’s pulse.

All is revealed through narrator, doctor or patient/family. No clergy is involved. No therapist. And no nurse.

[Via Ellen Richter’s Twitter feed]

So we’re either boobified by a physician exploiting a pop culture meme to the detriment of the nursing profession, or ignored, probably by the faulty reasoning that our voices don’t count in planning patient care. I’m not sure which is worse.

It’s been obvious to nurses for a very long time that the traditional media controls the narrative about nursing. We complain about inaccurate portrayals and demeaning stereotypes nearly on a daily basis. We heap almost excessive praise when the media gets it right. My own professional organization, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, for example, gives out prizes to journalists for the best stories about nursing in the old media. Notice, prizes aren’t given out to nurses telling their own stories, but rather for other people — non-nurses — telling our stories. This last is important, because the whole phenomenon of Web 2.0 is changing how the media and nurses themselves are portray nursing .

I’m beginning to think nurses should worry less about how the old media depicts us and focus more on how we describe ourselves through social media. Let me put it this way: I was alerted to both the PBS Frontline show and the dancing nurses by Ellen Richter and Vern Dutton respectively via Twitter, who pointed me to Paul McLean’s and Sean Dents’s post and the original link at The Truth About Nursing. Before I wrote this post, I posted on Mehmet Oz’s Facebook wall — as did Vern Dutton — about the inappropriateness of the show (and I encourage you to do the same). And now, I’m writing my own blog post, which I will Tweet and post on my Facebook page. The point is that it’s within the power of nurses ourselves to seize the narrative and tell our stories unfiltered either by cultural biases or media expectations — or even the likes of Mehmet Oz. I know my blog, in its own small way, has influenced and educated a number of people about what nurses know and about our pivotal, essential place in health care. Multiply that by growing number of nurse-bloggers and tweeters — and suddenly the traditional media looks a little less hegemonic. Mehmet Oz and PBS (as do any number of medical dramas) still need to be called out. Their antiquated attitudes aren’t quite irrelevant. But I’m hopeful. Because we increasingly own the narrative, it’s only a matter of time until we can say to all of  ’em, “To hell with you. We don’t need you.”

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  1. #1 by Sean on Thursday 25 November 2010 - 1139

    Here here!
    “it’s within the power of nurses ourselves to seize the narrative and tell our stories unfiltered either by cultural biases or media expectations”

    Preach it. We will continue to fight for the respect we already give and deserve. Thanks for strengthening the message.

  2. #2 by cotegauche on Thursday 25 November 2010 - 1356

    Nurses need to get over themselves. I’ve never seen a group so insecure that they need to constantly defend, rationalize, define, redefine, differentiate and bicker amongst themselves over their role, scope of practice and perception vis-a-vis other health professionals. Yes, nurses are misunderstood. Yes, a sizable proportion of the public still makes no distinction between RNs, LPNs and car-aids. Most have no idea what/who an NP is. Nurses do not get the respect they deserve; but all the PR in the world is not going to change this because, quite frankly, only nurses care about the perceptions of nursing. The occupational Napoleon syndrome isn’t going to change anything.

    The public may not understand nursing, but those who have had experiences with the health care system do value nurses. They understand that the person who assessed their condition throughout the night, the person who first recognized a deterioration, or adverse affect, the person who explained how to manage their chronic condition or care for their child or elder, the person who helped/instructed them to breast feed for the first time and encouraged them to stay with it when it was difficult, the person who followed up with home care and linked them to a social worker, dietitian or occupational therapist, the person who provided countless other vital interventions, was probably an RN. That was the mother of all run on sentences, but it only only scratches the surface on the vital roles that the public values in nursing (even if they still think of short skirts and bed pans).

    But when it comes to PR, regardless of how many health care professionals, from how many disciplines contributed to the patient’s treatment, the physician, who spent maybe 10 minutes with the patient will still own the outcome. It sucks, but the public still looks to the cure, not the care. But take pride in the practice of your profession and don’t waste your efforts tilting at windmills. Let the naughty librarians worry about their image.

  3. #3 by nurseXY on Thursday 25 November 2010 - 1714

    Nurses need to get over themselves?


    What your post says essentially is that even though the public perception of nurses is blatantly ignorant, we should be ok with that because *we* know the truth, and those we interact with on a regular basis know the truth.

    What if this was the attitude the civil rights movement had taken? Black people know that they’re really equal, so why bother working to combat ignorance. People who were around them on a regular basis knew that really women were capable as much as men, so why go through all the trouble to battle the misperceptions.

    Minorities just need to get over themselves, right?

    Ignorance is always wrong. Ignorance should *always* be challenged. Ignorance should ALWAYS be educated.

    It is *never* not worth it.

  4. #4 by cotegauche on Thursday 25 November 2010 - 1957

    Please don’t equate your “struggle” with that for basic human rights.

  5. #5 by Jenn Jilks on Friday 26 November 2010 - 1047

    I have the utmost respect for the great nurses with whom I have volunteered, with whom I have had a working relationship, and those who worked with my family. My Hospice clients speak highly of them.
    Nurses are the best advocates for my clients.
    Nurses are the front line.
    I have seen them advocate on behalf of patients with physicians. The physician pops in to visit a patient. The nurses are there, hourly, if not more with very ill patients.
    Some are insecure and just plain wrong.
    Most work hard and must fight to have their voices heard. This show is disgusting, from what I have heard. This physician (Oz) has sunk to a new low.

  6. #6 by torontoemerg on Saturday 27 November 2010 - 0831

    @cotegauche: the trouble being, is that there’s a definite correlation between the professional image of nurses and patient outcomes. You want a system where nurses are reduced to “physician handmaid’s”? That’s fine. But don’t expect a good treatment plan either.

    Incidentally, the image of nurses — all those stereotypes — is directly related to those of women in general: by conventional media, we’re sluts, clueless, dependent on men, and if male, effeminate gays. The human rights comparison (though I don’t think he was quite saying that) is actually pretty apt. If you care about women’s rights, you ought to care about the image of nurses.

  7. #7 by cartoon characters on Wednesday 08 December 2010 - 1540

    apparently Dr Oz has “apologized” – but it sounds less an apology and retraction and more of a “sorry you were hurt by it” ……..which translates to me that he was only sorry people took it the way they did – not SORRY FOR SAYING IT……

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