If you’re looking for angels, you’ve come to the wrong place. So says GuitarGirlRN in her latest blog post.

One stereotype of nursing (and it’s perpetuated by nurses as well as by those not in the medical or nursing fields) that bothers me is that of nurses as “angels of mercy.”

We’re expected to smile while up to our elbows in bloody shit and vomit, be pleasant to rude and sometimes violent people, put up with crap from doctors, managers, patients, their families, nurse techs, and janitors yet keep our cool, never cry, never sweat, never lose our tempers with each other, always be prepared and be right there when we are needed.

by shioshvili/via Flickr

Her point is that nurses are human; they do the best they can with scant resources, but they aren’t superhuman. They aren’t saints, they have lives of their own, and they can’t always be all things to all people. Back in 2005, noted author Suzanne Gordon wrote, with Sioban Nelson, an article for us called “An End to Angels.” In it, they presented the idea that nursing is a profession with a serious image problem, one that undercuts recruitment efforts and ill prepares new nurses for the reality of their work. The arguments in the article are subtle and thought provoking, and impossible to summarize. Here, anyway, is the introduction:

Nurses often disagree on the causes of and possible solutions to the current nursing shortage. Mandatory staffing ratios versus Magnet hospitals? Sign-on bonuses for nurses versus more unionization of RNs? The aging of the nursing workforce versus working conditions? Still, most nurses agree that the profession needs a contemporary image to attract new recruits and reinforce the idea that nursing is a profession grounded in science, technology, and knowledge. To present a modern image and solve the crisis, dozens of different groups have produced advertising campaigns and promotional messages to attract new recruits to the profession.

A close analysis of the words and images used in these campaigns reveals that, instead of creating a modern, accurate version of today’s nurse, many simply repackage nursing’s traditional stereotype of women born to be good, kind, and self-sacrificing-not educated to provide care based on science and practical skill. Although many studies-conducted by nursing, medical, and public health researchers-have documented the links between nursing care and lower rates of nosocomial infections, falls, pressure ulcers, deep-vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and death, most promotional campaigns are conspicuous for their failure to promote these data. Even when ads feature a mix of men, women, and minorities, what is often communicated is a sexist, archaic message: nursing is virtuous work.

The subtitle of Gordon and Nelson’s article is “moving away from the ‘virtue script’ toward a knowledge-based identity for nurses.” So, five years on, how is the nursing profession doing with this? Do you feel you have a “knowledge-based” professional identity? Is that how patients, physicians, nursing instructors, administrators, your friends and family, and the general public see you?—JM, senior editor

Bookmark and Share