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Nursing's Public Image

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Nursing’s Public Image
How does the public view nursing? From its earliest beginnings, the profession of nursing has revolved around human needs. One of the greatest strengths of nursing is the extensive range of opportunities and options that it has to offer. There are many different levels of practice, specialties, and there are always opportunities to advance in the nursing profession. With nurses playing a major role in designing the new healthcare system in the United States, now there is an even greater need for a positive public image of nursing. However, nursing's contributions to healthcare may be transparent or even ignored by the public and the media. The media has an immense effect on the perceptions of society. Therefore, any misrepresentation of the nursing profession by the media may negatively affect nursing's public image. As nurses, we have a responsibility to the entire nursing profession to protect our image, and take action to ensure that the public is not mislead by the media.
Over time, there have been many images of nurses purported by the media. Nurses play roles in movies, television series, plays, books, and in reality they may be seen on the news or in newspapers. Some suggest that these media portrayals are solely to blame for the public's misconceptions or stereotypes regarding nursing. In actuality, the public image of nursing has evolved as the nursing profession has evolved, even before media influence was a factor. In the late 1800's through early 1900's, nursing was viewed as more of a religious calling than a profession. Then, from 1920-1949, nursing was regarded as a skilled discipline (Kelly, 2010). One study, done by Kalisch and Kalisch in 1982, examined film images of nurses from silent films to the 1980s. They found the image of nursing in these films to be most positive during the World War II era. During that time nurses were positively portrayed as intelligent and dedicated (Schluter, 2012). Since this time, society has formed multiple new stereotypes about nursing.
The metaphor "stereotype" was coined by a journalist in 1922, as a selection process that is used to organize and simplify society's perceptions of different groups of people (Kelly, 2010). The media also damages the image of nursing by exploiting the stereotypes. The common media stereotypes of nurses range from the benign to the noxious. The most common stereotypes purported by the media include the "ministering angel", the innocent, overly compassionate angelic figure that hovers and tends to the needs of a battered soldier. Then there is the stereotypical "dumb nurse" who follows the physician around aimlessly, catering to their every whim without question. The "naughty nurse" who tends to her patients' needs in a tight, short dress with exposed cleavage. Perhaps the most offensive of the stereotypes is the "battle-axe", who sadistically tortures her pathetic, whimpering patients. All of these stereotypes serve as obstacles for nursing's public image (The Media's Effect, n.d.).
The media also misrepresents nurses by neglecting to show them in the full extent of their role, or not showing them involved at all. Television shows like "House" or "Grey's Anatomy" generally portray physicians as the key clinicians in the hospital setting. Nurses are only seen in background fetching things. These portrayals reinforce the misconception that nurses are not critical thinkers and that we are dependent on physicians. This shows nursing not as a profession unto itself, but that nurses serve as just medical aids. If a viewer does not know a lot about nursing as a professional career and they are watching these shows in which most nurses are portrayed as being in the way, they may lose respect for nurses. This lack of respect may lead viewers to overlook nursing as a future profession (Mee, 2010). The television producers of these medical dramas need a better understanding of a nurse's function and their importance as essential members of the healthcare team (Cabaniss, 2011).
Conversely, the media is not solely to blame for the public's misconceptions about nursing. Nurses also must share some of the blame. "Failure to educate the public about the role of nursing by not being visible in the media is a long-standing problem for nursing" (Schluter, 2012). Nursing itself stems from humble beginnings, so nurses may not feel comfortable being in the limelight or seeking public recognition for their great works. However, if nurses do not break away from this meek attitude and actively seek out opportunities for news and media coverage regarding nursing, then nurses themselves become responsible for the absence of nursing in the media. Each nurse should be challenged to stand up be recognized by contacting media outlets directly. Nurses also shape their own public image through how they interact with patients, how they dress, and the language they use (Kelly, 2010). This leads to the viewpoint that the responsibility for producing the correct images of nursing to society rests with nurses themselves. It is also vital for nurse educators to speak on this topic and educate nurses on the importance of the public's image of nursing and its effects (Cabaniss, 2011).
There are numerous cultural and legal/ethical factors that are related to nursing's public image. In a diverse, multicultural society such as ours, nurses care for patients of many different cultures, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. If the public views nursing as a career for young, Caucasian females, then how can nursing diversify itself? People of different cultures and ethnicities may not be encouraged to pursue nursing as a career choice, or even trust a profession that is seemingly made up of only one ethnicity. It is important that we realize that if media dictates our image to the public, the outcome will be nursing becoming less diverse. A diverse workforce means that different people from different backgrounds will have differing ideas and viewpoints which will lead to positive outcomes and problem-solving. Therefore, employers should be aware of the perceived stereotypes and focus on recruitment and retention of a diverse group of nurses.
Also important to address is the legal/ethical issues regarding nursing's public image. For example, if the media dictates society's expectations of what a nurse should look like, this may lead to discrimination in the workplace. Due to the "white female nurse" image often depicted by the media, employers may unknowingly discriminate against nurses of different ethnicities or even male nurses. Some male nurses have even had to seek legal action against employers in order to work in Obstetrics. The stereotype that all male nurses are gay can also cause serious legal issues in terms of sexual harassment/discrimination. It’s important for society to see the major role males play in nursing today. Nursing as a female-dominated profession is always struggling for power and a voice. Bringing more men into the profession may give nursing more power and control and the validation nursing needs to influence change.
This issue can seriously affect the role of nurses. If nurses are constantly exposed to negative images portrayed in the media, or a lack of recognition from the media, it will negatively affect their work morale. Then they may begin to undervalue their work, including their patients. If these feelings of discouragement affect the quality of care they give, patients could be at risk. Nurses must try to ignore these negative stereotypes and misconceptions and always act ethically in the care of their patients. Media portrayals may also severely impact the future of nursing as a whole. If the nursing profession is constantly being undermined, humiliated, and/or ignored by the media, then viewers will be even less encouraged to pursue nursing as a career; making it more difficult to recruit new nurses and retain experienced nurses. This will only add to the nursing shortage in a time when the need for nurses is so critical in our healthcare system (Kelly, 2010).
In conclusion, the issue of nursing's public image is one that will not only affect nurses, but the future of the entire profession of nursing. Though the media is an easy scapegoat to blame for society's misconceptions about nursing, as nurses we are responsible for our own public image. Nursing as a profession, and nurses in general tend to not publicize what we know, what we do, or how important our roles are to society. Changing a culture comes from within. So, in order to protect and develop the public image of nursing, transformation has to start with the nurses.


Cabaniss, R. (2011). Educating nurses to impact change in nursing's image. Teaching & Learning In Nursing, 6(3), 112-118. doi:10.1016/j.teln.2011.01.003
Kelly, J. (2010). [Review of the book Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts us All at Risk]. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 19(17/18), 2668. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2010.03325.x
Mee, C. (2010). Nursing’s image in the media: just in jest. Elsevier. Retrieved from:
Schluter, V. (2012). Nursing’s Image in the Media [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from
The Media's Effect. (n.d.). The Truth About Nursing. Retrieved from

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