Saving Lives: Why the Media Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk

Nursing Book Club

Saving Lives: Why the Media Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk

By Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH, and Harry Jacobs Summers (Oxford University Press, 2015)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN

If I were to compile a list of books every nurse should read, Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nursing Puts Us All at Risk, would be at the top. The reason for this strong endorsement is that as a nurse and a writer, I care passionately about how the public views our profession.

A Formative Influence

I should mention that author Sandy Summers — founder of The Truth About Nursing — is the reason I first picked up a pen. After Summers declared that nurses actually have a duty to educate the public about the work we do (as opposed to the work the public thinks we do), I sat down and wrote an op-ed piece for my local paper.

That first editorial asked that everyone say thank you to nurses for the patients we have helped and stop paying attention to the stereotypes about us.

As we know, the media too frequently shows nurses in an endlessly condescending light. On TV and in the movies, physicians are shown running hospitals, saving lives and making all the important decisions. Nurses, on the other hand, are either shown wearing naughty or cartoonish clothing or else depicted as glorified secretaries and janitors. (It’s a wonder that we need any education at all!)

In this book, Summers and her husband, Harry Jacobs Summers, have beautifully documented not only the way nurses are usually depicted, but also the scholarly research that shows how these tropes affect just about everything related to the nursing profession.

The way nurses are portrayed in the media has a serious impact on who enters or leaves the profession; how we are treated; and even how we’re paid. While physicians bill separately and are often handsomely compensated, nursing costs are rolled into hospital overhead charges and are rarely reimbursed by insurers.

Who Gets the Praise

Of course, hospital staffs know the truth about what goes on in hospitals and how important nurses are to outcomes, but we also know who gets the praise, and it’s very seldom us.I

I worked for years in labor and delivery and used to watch as patients praised their obstetricians, who came in only during end-stage labor. The nurses — who were at the bedside the whole time, coaching, watching carefully for fetal distress and deciding when to call the doctor or midwife without alarming the parents-to-be — were lumped together as just “staff.”

    One of the most galling personal examples was when I had an article about pertussis published years ago in the New York Times. Although I frequently saw the Times insert “M.D.” after the names of physicians, I was told that the paper would not put “RN” after my name, as it “was not one of the abbreviations [they] use.”

Spreading the Word

Saving Lives, first published by Kaplan in 2009 with an updated edition published in 2015 by Oxford University Press spends 371 pages challenging the reader to rethink common stereotypes about nursing and consider the importance they have in today’s changing healthcare scene.

The book is written in a fun, readable, even sarcastic style, referencing many of the television shows with which we’re already familiar, including “ER,” “Nurse Jackie,” “House” (which at the end had no nurses at all) and “Call the Midwife.”

Nurses already know the truth found in the pages of this book. Now, we need to make sure it’s shared with journalists and policymakers to help shape attitudes and critical decisions regarding the indispensable, highly trained nursing field and ensure that nurses receive the funding, educational support and praise they are due.   

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.


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