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Sandy Summers, on media portrayal of nurses
How did you get into nursing?I started as a nurses aide in high school and knew little of nurses’ work. At 16, the media already had me believing nursing was all about serving physicians and being a scut-work saint. Then, I saw a nurse decide to hold a drowsy patient’s Haldol and I was really impressed that nurses had such autonomy.I thought, “Wow, nurses can make independent decisions that affect patient health.” That was it.How did the Center for Nursing Advocacy start?In graduate school, we were learning about advocacy in our nursing leadership class and discussing how we could improve the nursing crisis. A federal budget proposal had just been issued with cuts to nursing education and community health. We realized that decision-makers did not really know what nurses do — why else would they cut nursing funding at such a crucial time? We decided the public needed education on what nurses do.Where do you see the most harm being done?Television’s ER has got to be nursing’s public enemy No.1. They reach so many people; 20 million to 30 million in the U.S., tens of millions more around the world.ER is physician-centric and consistently has shown nurses as handmaidens — competent helpmates to physicians without meaningful or significant work of their own. It shows physicians doing what nurses typically do in real life — defibrillation, patient education, triage, supervision of nurses — the list is endless.In 2000, JWT Communications (now JWT Specialized Communications), an employment-marketing agency, did a focus group study of 1,800 school students who said they got their most striking impression of nursing from ER. They saw nursing as a girl’s job, a technical field “like shop,” and too lowly for private school students.A Kaiser Foundation study also found that one-third of ER viewers make health care decisions based on that program.One cable program, Strong Medicine, is designed to promote women and pump up their self-esteem. What you have is a role reversal in which the women are physicians and one man plays the lone major nurse character. He makes decisions that the female physicians override. The show relegates men to what is depicted as a meaningless job entirely under the control of physicians to show how powerful and independent women can be. It’s wonderful for women’s image but just tragic for nursing, which ironically is 95% woman.We’ll be broadening our ER campaign to include its sponsors this fall.How does your center function?Right now, we’re run on a shoestring with a few volunteers. We encourage nurses to join and support our efforts. Upon joining, nurses will receive three free RN patches. We’ve got to identify RNs so patients know where their care comes from and health facilities will stop replacing RNs with barely trained personnel.We also monitor the media and, of course, people write and alert us as to what’s happening.Any successes so far?Yes. Our latest campaign asked Skechers shoe company to pull an ad that depicted Christina Aguilera in a “naughty nurse” outfit (short white uniform, garter belt, exposed bra, dominatrix boots. The company got 3,000 letters before they announced they had decided to pull the ad.Recently, Disney had produced a sultry “Jessica Rabbit” pin to “honor” Nurses Week. It’s not clear how that was an honor to nurses, but they stopped selling the pins after about 200 letters.Center for Nursing Advocacy campaigns also have prevailed upon Penzoil, Physicians Formula, and Clairol to end sexually oriented nurse ads. All three companies pulled their ads after 100 to 200 letters.We are starting to make headway as we speak in unison. Many nurses have more of an impact than one.Is there a place to report questionable depictions of nurses?Yes, please e-mail us at us at [email protected] advocacy.org. so we can organize a collective action by the nursing community.Nurses as a group traditionally have said little about how we are portrayed in the media and have become an easy target for stereotyping. It’s time to take control of our media image and let people know how important our work is.
Sandra Jacobs Summers, RN, MSN, MPH, received her BSN from Southern Connecticut State University in 1984, after which she worked as an ED, ICU, and community health nurse in San Francisco, Washington, New Orleans, the Virgin Islands, and Cambodia. She earned her MSN and MPH from Johns Hopkins University in 2002. She is a member of Sigma Theta Tau and Delta Omega, the public health honor society. She has been the executive director of the Center for Nursing Advocacy, which works to improve the portrayal of nurses in the media, since she and fellow Hopkins grad students founded it in April 2001.
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