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UCLA

The Truth About Nurses

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By Andriana Trang '12

Published May 24, 2011 2:57 PM


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Nurse Jackie leading a team for her patient. Photo courtesy of Showtime.

A patient is flat-lining. A physician's there immediately, shocking him back to life.

A patient has a seizure. A physician's there already, calling out the code.

A patient is in desperate need of medication. A physician's handing him pills and hanging an IV-drip bag.

As any nurse will tell you, these images are all wrong. But for medical TV-show viewers, they're not uncommon. And that was the motivation behind the UCLA School of Nursing's inaugural "Media Images and Screen Representations of Nursing" symposium.

Held at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on May 12, the symposium brought together nurses and members of the media to identify and dispel the myths and stereotypes about nursing, some that have existed in storylines for more than 50 years.

Joseph Turow, Ph.D., author of Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power, opened the conference with a look at Hollywood's medical-drama formula, a tried-and-true equation originating in the 1960s with shows such as Medic and Dr. Kildare. Back then, physicians were portrayed on TV as larger-than-life heroes. And the nurses? They served either only as doctors' eye candy/love interests — or were entirely absent from the screen.

The roles aren't so different on today's primetime shows.

At one point during the symposium, Sandy Summers — a nurse, health-care advocate and co-author of Saving Lives: Why the Media's Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk — flashed scene after scene from contemporary TV shows and commercials including ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, NBC's ER and FOX's House. In all of Summers' examples, the nurse characters were either figures for ridicule or little more than anonymous human backdrops to hospital drama.

In one particularly telling scene from ER, a faceless nurse seductively drapes a stethoscope around the neck of physician, interrupting him just as he's examining his patient. Suggesting that nurses regularly engage in this behavior is insulting, a fired-up Summers explained. And it plays directly into the media's "handmaiden" stereotype of nurses: that they're powerless, ineffective and entirely dependent upon doctors.

Nurses also confront the "naughty nurse" stereotype, especially in commercials.

In a recent TV ad for Dentyne Ice, for example, a frisky male patient lures a sexy nurse into his sick bed with a piece of "fresh" chewing gum. And in a spot for Dos Equis beer, "the Most Interesting Man in the World" bench-presses a pair of flirty nurses, each "dressed" in the skimpiest of uniforms.

Summers did note that more realistic representations of nurses can now be seen on TV, crediting Showtime's Nurse Jackie and TNT's HawthoRNe. In these shows, she said, the depiction of nurses, their roles, and their daily dramas reflect reality to a closer degree than the major-network, primetime medical dramas.

No matter how they're portrayed, more often than not nurses are marginalized on TV and in movies — while heroic physicians race to perform procedures. On House, for example, virtually every episode involves a physician shocking his patient back to consciousness with a defibrillator, personally hanging IV bags, and/or providing counsel to to uninsured accident victims.

That's just not so in real life, says MarySue Heilemann, PhD, RN, one of the organizers of the "Media Images and Screen Representations of Nursing" symposium. In fact, it's "impossible and totally unrealistic," she says.

"It's nurses who are the health-care professionals with patients all hours of the day and night," Heilemann explains. "Relating to the patient, performing procedures, doing patient teaching, monitoring their progress, helping them cope, and providing complex, life-saving care for the patient — 24/7."

Entertainment media will benefit by moving toward this more accurate portrayal of nurses, as it will allow for the creation of more realistic, better programming, Heilemann says.

"Therefore," she adds," better television."

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