When most people think of a nurse, they likely envision someone in a hospital with a stethoscope around her neck wearing scrubs.
That image is well-founded. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the more than 2.9 million registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S., 58 percent are employed in hospitals. Just over 20 percent are employed in home health, physician offices and outpatient center settings.
Consider the nursing stereotypes depicted in the media such as an angel, wannabe physician and handmaiden. Nursing is rarely portrayed as a scientific field on favorite TV shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy, which recently aired its final episode of its 15th season.
In many current popular or recent medical shows such as “Chicago Med,” “The Good Doctor,” or "9-1-1,” nurses may not be present at all or may portray nurses as background characters that are tied to lead physician characters.
Rarely are nurses portrayed in a manner that highlights their specific knowledge and skill set as valuable professionals in the health-care field. The current show, “The Resident” features a nurse as a main character. Yet, traditionally, nurses as main characters, such as Nurse Jackie appear to be exceptions to the rule, not the norm.
Even with limited primetime representation, the public reportedly has a positive view of the nursing profession, which has been recognized as the most ethical and honest profession for 16 consecutive years in an annual Gallup survey.
This image of nursing for the public implies nurses must be regularly sought out by the news media to contribute to important conversations on health care such as the childhood obesity epidemic or the upcoming flu season. However, this is not the case.
A recent study published in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship titled The Woodhull Study Revisited: Nurse’s Representation in Health News , a follow-up on the original 1997 Woodhull Study, highlights the underrepresentation of nurses in the media.
Two decades ago the original research found that quotes from nurses were cited in only four percent of health news stories. Twenty years later, only 2 percent of health news stories cited quotes from nurses, showing no gain in the voice of nurses being included as experts in the health-care field.
One of the most interesting findings from the Woodhull Study Revisited was those health and health-care related sectors where nurses were not cited at all including health0care management, business, policy and research. This is while nurses with advanced education and skill sets are actively involved in all of these health -are sectors. Of the one out of every five nurses who are not in hospital, home health, office or outpatient settings, many are in sectors that are not as visible to the public.
Today’s nurses are better educated than ever before and are seizing a wide variety of employment opportunities like never before. The Campaign for Nursing Action reveals that in 2017, 6,090 nurses received their Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) and 795 nurses received their PhD in Nursing as a means to enhance their knowledge and contributions to the profession and to improve the public’s health.
Nurses with advanced degrees are often in leadership roles that may not involve direct patient care but nonetheless are still instrumental in influencing health outcomes for patients, families and communities at large.
Nurses across the country are working in roles such as Chief Nursing Officer, Chief Operations Officer in hospitals and community-based settings, Nurse Entrepreneurs, Assistant Surgeon General's, Legal Nurse Consultants, Researchers, Nurse Attorneys, Directors of Governmental and Non- Governmental agencies and Deans of Schools and Colleges of the Health Professions including Nursing.
The recent election of Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) is a testament to how nurses are using their nursing knowledge and expertise beyond the traditional nursing roles to influence public policy on health care and beyond.
Underwood has been criticized perhaps because a large portion of her nursing career has included service in the private and governmental sector, venues outside of places where nurses deliver hands-on care. This is just one demonstration of the possible public misunderstanding of the breadth of nursing’s contributions in shaping public health.
Regardless of the setting, nurses are well positioned to inform the public’s perspective on health care in a variety of ways.
It is time to re-examine the prevalent images of nurses in this country. Becoming aware of the variety of critical roles nurses play in the larger health-care sector is something everyone can be thankful for this season.
Mallory Bejster RN is the RN-BS coordinator and an instructor of nursing at the University of Central Missouri and, a community health nursing clinical instructor at Rush University. Janice Phillips, RN, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing and the director of nursing research. Both are Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.