CNO Roundtable

Nurses in the Media

Q: There has been a lot of attention to the way nurses are depicted in movies and TV shows. Is there a portrayal that you felt got it right, or was completely off the mark?

Katie Hughes, RN, MSN, CRRN

Chief Nursing Officer
Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare

Over the last few years, I’ve been watching “Call the Midwife,” a British TV series set in 1950s London [pictured above]. I was hoping it would be a show about nursing that I couldn’t critique for inaccuracies, which I often do with medical shows. Obviously, nurses today don’t wear caps, are more diverse than in the ‘50s and have much more technology and knowledge available to them.

Yet, the writers of the show have managed to create a depiction of nursing that seems to be as relevant today as the period in which the series is set. When faced with challenges, the nurse characters work as a team, apply their learned knowledge and critically evaluate every situation with the goal of ensuring the best outcome for the patient. Whether the BBC depiction of nursing in 1950s London is accurate or not, I think that the overarching themes of the show compare well to modern-day nursing.

Jennifer R. Castaldo, RN, BSN, MSHA, NEA-BC

Vice President / Chief Nursing Officer
Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital

I sometimes struggle with how nurses are portrayed in the media, which rarely coincides with reality. At times, I even find myself ambivalent about the Gallup polls that consistently find that people believe nurses to be the most ethical and honest profession. Such impressions of nursing are often based on the “angel” stereotype of nursing, which is an image of nurses as unskilled, hand-holding, pillow-fluffing caregivers. That is the foundation of traditional nursing practice, and we should not underestimate the importance of human touch and basic bedside care. However, the public needs to know that we also have education, skill, and autonomy.

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Media portrayals are critical to nursing’s future because of their proven influence on how people regard the profession and healthcare in general. The media must help the public to understand nursing’s true nature and value.

Derek Drake, RN, DNP, NE-BC, CNML, CNL

Chief Nursing Officer
St. Francis Medical Center

The media consistently perpetuates the image of nursing as a feminine profession. Very little is written or publicized about the role of men in nursing. As a result, I have never found any media depiction of men in nursing to be accurate. Popular TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Private Practice” and “Scrubs” and movies like Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers(just to name a few) are all completely off the mark when it comes to depicting men in nursing.

Instead of accurately portraying the contributions, history and value of men in nursing, these shows and movies present stereotypes of male nurses as emasculated failed physicians — weak, timid and incompetent. This is a topic I am very passionate about as a nursing leader. If we can correct how media outlets portray men in nursing, it is likely to result in increased recruitment and retention of men into these valuable nursing roles.

Linda Sarna, RN, Ph.D., FAAN

Dean / Professor / Lulu Wolf Hassenplug Chair
UCLA School of Nursing

Images of Florence Nightingale usually depict her standing over a wounded soldier’s bed with a lantern, her face showing care and concern. Compassion is important, but Florence Nightingale was so much more: She laid the foundation for professional nursing, established the first secular nursing school in the world, led social reforms and was a pioneer in the visual presentation of information and statistical graphics. Yet, we seldom see images of her that describe her statistical analysis. I am hopeful that future depictions will focus on her legacy as a fearless pioneer, leader and educator who transformed healthcare.

Lauren Spilsbury, RN, MSN

Vice President, Patient Care Services
Redlands Community Hospital

In the ‘90s, there was a weekly TV drama entitled “Chicago Hope” with many different physician characters, but only one nurse. That poor nurse was in the OR one week, in pediatrics the next. A few episodes after that, she went up to the NICU. I wrote to the producers to share my perspective and explain that the show did not depict nurses in an accurate light. It takes years for a nurse to become an expert in her or his field. Moving this nurse from specialty to specialty misrepresented nursing and the contributions we make to our patients’ health. My message to the producers did not change their storylines, so I stopped watching.

Today, I enjoy watching “The Resident” because it depicts the nurse practitioner character, Nic Nevin, as strong, resourceful and intelligent. She is passionate about being a nurse and stands as a colleague with her physician partners.

For more from the CNO Roundtable:

2020: The Year of the Nurse and the Midwife

Your Path to Leadership

Lifelong Learning

Staffing Challenges and the Silver Wave

CNO Reading List

New Grads at the Bedside

Exciting Innovations

The COVID-19 Pandemic

Chief Nursing Officer Roundtable 2020 (homepage)


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