A nurse sees a patient. Despite all efforts by the nurse to be kind, caring and empathetic, the patient is demanding, refuses to answer questions and is outright rude to the nurse. Exasperated, the nurse calls on the doctor to speak to the patient. All of a sudden, the red-faced, hot-tempered individual is replaced by a kind, respectful model specimen of a patient as the doctor enters the room to speak with them. Such a situation, where the patient has a complete change in attitude towards the doctor after mistreating a nurse, is unfortunately a very common scenario.

Patients show less respect to nurses than other healthcare professionals

Most nurses are caring people, as the nature of their work requires such an attribute. Being the healthcare professional that the patient interacts with the most during their hospital stay, nurses do all they can to look after their patients’ needs. However, difficult patients are a dime a dozen, and they tend to be more callous with nurses.

While the majority of these situations are, more often than not, dependent on the type of care extended by the nurse, it remains a fact that the patient is dealing with a nurse and they do not show the same level of respect they give to doctors. Nurses, too, are health care professionals and they deserve the same respect that any other member of the healthcare team would receive. The underlying reason of such treatment from patients is due to a certain generic image of a nurse that has developed over the years, portraying them as lesser healthcare professionals.

Nurses in mass media commonly portrayed as assistants instead of experts

These days, there are many television shows based on healthcare professionals, but almost all of these shows feature doctors in the prominent roles. Nurses exist in all of these settings, but often their work is not highlighted or showcased with much significance.

The role of nurses is depicted as being mere helpers or assistants, instead of experts in their own field – a good example is where many series or movies include a scene where a female doctor is mistaken as a nurse, and it is automatically seen as an insult. As such, the public’s perception of nursing is framed by the portrayal of nurses in mass media, a non-glamorous, low-end role, and this perception has tainted the attitudes of some patients towards nurses.

Portrayal of nurses in mass media hurting the profession

The effect of such negative portrayals of nurses has also a much more damaging consequence to the profession.

In 2008, a study conducted by Dundee University found that academically advanced primary school students are not keen to pursue a profession in nursing due to the portrayal of nurses as “brainless, sex mad bimbos” in television. Another study by JWT Communications in 2000 found that the television drama ER was the main source of the impression of nurses among school children in the US, and these children felt that nursing is a technical job for females and not a worthy profession for private school students.

Against the increasing shortage of nurses in the healthcare industry, the media’s portrayal of the nurses can be another blow to efforts in attracting more people into the nursing profession.

Educate patients to correct the negative image of nurses

Undeniably, mass media has a huge role in today’s world, and it would be difficult to completely remove the negative association with nurses, as a result of their portrayal by the mass media. However, nurses are healthcare professionals as well, and it is vital to take care of everyone on the medical team.

When team members are supportive of one another, the delivery of care for patients would definitely be more effective. For doctors, one way to do so is to be an advocate for nurses, just as they are also advocates for patients. In educating their patients about caring for their health, doctors can also promote the other members of the healthcare team, and in time change the generic image of nurses as portrayed by the mass media. MIMS

Read more:
A rise in nurses taking over doctors' responsibilities
Doctors who were once nurses: What makes these individuals stand out?
7 types of patients nurses encounter every day
What can be done to improve the doctor-nurse relationship?

- Summers, "The image of nursing: A culture of respect”, Nursing Times, September 2010
- Morales, "The Truth About Nurses: We Need Respect Too”, NurseTogether, December 2012
-Tomajan, K., (January 31, 2012) "Advocating for Nurses and Nursing" OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing Vol. 17, No. 1, Manuscript 4.