Ask any experienced nurse what they think about the way television portrays nurse life and they will likely laugh out loud. Flip through the popular medical dramas of today to see nurses having illicit affairs, clandestine moments in the elevator, stairwell, empty OR, or office. Watch these dramas unfold to portray surgeons chatting amiably with patients, enquiring of their home life, offering personal anecdotes, all the while charting, checking IVs, and making the patient comfy. These shows are unrealistic at best, and border on the ridiculous in the way in which they portray nurse life or life in medicine in general.
In the Beginning
Medical dramas aren’t new by any means. As televisions became a mainstay with American families many of the early and most watched shows revolved around doctors and nurses, in hospitals and private practice. The earliest medical dramas, “City Hospital”, “Dr. Kildare”, and “Ben Casey” portrayed nurses as strictly female, doctors were strictly male, and nurses were subservient to a cringeworthy degree.
Nurses were portrayed in a sympathetic light, submissive, and in the shadows of those god-like physicians. In these early shows, and even today, doctors are shown performing critical tasks that are, in fact, part of what nurses have always done. Nurses were shown emptying bedpans, taking a patient’s blood pressure, changing linen, and dating doctors. These early medical dramas are an affront to the nursing profession, and essentially all women.
As women pushed for equality, nurses began to be portrayed as having slightly more authority in medical centers and physician’s practices. The occasional male nurse appeared to facilitate the stories and provide an interesting “phenomenon”-a man in medicine who was not a doctor. The physicians still ruled even in the days of equality and enlightenment.
For awhile, in the 90’s, medical dramas began to portray nurses a little more realistically-in depth and intelligent. Unfortunately, even with the nurse characters front and center in many of the storylines, they still revolved around raffish affairs with male doctors, deep personal baggage (in one case a suicide attempt after said doctor casts his nurse toy aside to pursue yet more nurses), and deeply flawed portrayals of nurse life.
Is TV Nurse Life More Realistic Today?
The fictional medical shows of the new millennium didn’t progress a whole lot beyond those of a few decades before. Nurses are still shown in a way that drives the storyline in a sexual manner. For that matter, however, so are doctors! It’s unimaginable that any medicine would ever be practiced in most of these hospitals. Who has time?
Beyond the tawdry affairs taking place all over these fictional medical facilities, there are other glaring affronts to nurses everywhere. The most recent shows portray doctors as not having support staff. Techs and nurses are nowhere to be found throughout most of the episode (unless they’ve lured a doctor into a supply room). The doctor is left to discuss the patients course of treatment, run MRI’s, monitor the patients IV, help the patient cope with the diagnosis, and comfort family members. In many cases several doctors make up the team while nurses are nowhere to be found.
In fact, in real nurse life it is the nurse, assigned to the patient, who performs the above mentioned duties in conjunction with other hospital staff. It’s vital that doctors, nurses, and additional hospital staff, work in tandem with one another. That’s the reality of nurse life. Check any supply room in any hospital and you’re likely to find it unoccupied.
Beyond The Screen
Yet another fact about nurse life that scriptwriters get wrong is that nurses are the dour, grumpy lackeys just waiting for a physician to give them an order. In fact, in real nurse life you can spend the better part of your shift never being yelled at, groped by, or sometimes even encountering a doctor. Nurses can be found at their patients bedside, monitoring IV’s, administering meds, providing comfort to the family and helping the patient come to terms with a diagnosis.
So, how do we encourage these so-called medical dramas to portray our noble profession in a much better-and realistic-light? Well, there’s very little we can do. Medical dramas, and even comedies, are among some of the longest running shows on television. So sit back, put your feet up relax, and laugh out loud at some of the more ridiculous stereotypes of nurse life. After your shift, you’ve probably earned the laugh.