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Ooh matron - how can we improve our image?

Last time I wrote "My Week" I promised you something about the nursing identity. Having delivered a lecture on that theme just last week and also prepared seminar materials for my colleagues from all branches of nursing, I am ready to unburden myself of the clichés and stereotypes alive and well out there in internetland.

As part of the exercise I decided to "google" for images of nursing. Apart from the marketing materials for various university courses most of the images were either historical (very interesting and educational) or straight out of a "Carry-On" film.

Nearly all the pictures were of female, hospital-based nurses with or without a stethoscope wrapped around their neck. One wonders about the public's image of the profession if in the days of worldwide fast access to information, these are the main images available to us.

When reading in preparation for the lecture I came across some really interesting sites in America that are campaigning for better images of nursing in the media and popular culture. I was particularly struck by a website that analysed film and television dramas in relation to their depiction of nursing and whether they gave a fair view of the profession or not (if you are interested I have listed the website at the end).

The conclusions I came to were:

  • There are conflicting and competing images of nurses and nursing out there on television and film, in magazines etc.
  • The images of nursing can be contrasted with the images of nurses. Individual nurses are highly valued (most people have a story to tell of a caring nurse or have a friend or family member who is a nurse), and this leads to very positive images. However, in contrast to this, nurses as a professional group are often viewed as a caricature - uncaring and busy or maneaters.
  • Most images portray acute adult nursing. Sometimes children's nursing is seen, but mental health, learning disability and community nursing are almost invisible.
  • Patient experiences vary hugely. Some are positive and tend to be romanticised and sentimental. However, others are angry, defensive of nurses' authority, wanting to be seen as a person, and frustrated that nurses have become technicians caught up in the managerialism of the health service.

However dispiriting this search was, I became very clear about what I felt were the issues to leave the students with. At the end of the day, whatever the image and identity of nursing, there should be a firm ethical and moral principle underpinning our practice.
I felt that it was important that the students became more aware of the images out there and the impact that these might have on their experience of nursing, and whether they chose to stay or not. I also pointed out that families' and friends' responses to their choice to become nurses may be less than positive, and that we still have a lot of work to do to improve people's perception of nursing and nurses.

Too many nurses become disillusioned and stressed with the dissonance between expectation and reality, and I felt that at least I could help prepare nursing students for the realities of practice.

What do you think? Do let us know.

Center for Nursing Advocacy

Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)
"Unfortunately, I don't think that the media's portrayal of nurses has changed much from the  stereotypical view of angels/vamps in the 20 years that I have been nursing. The article rightly points out that individually, most people have a positive experience of nurses, corporately however the image remains unchanged. I think the way forward would be for the political bodies of nursing unions to lobby the media to alter their portrayal of nurses, this however does take time" - Ellen Nicholson, Somerset

"The trouble is we do not market ourselves. Nursing is different as you said depending in which area you work. Nursing differs so much these days from what the public's image and perceptions are" - Name and address supplied