Perhaps all professions have stereotypes. For instance, the Italian chef, the cocky policeman, or the disgruntled cashier are all possible types in these professions—and they do nothing for the people who actually work in those professions. Unfortunately, nursing is the same way, having a bevy full of stereotypes that describe different types of nurses. However, with nursing, the stereotypes are something different. They are skewed, insidious, and dangerous.

On the website, TruthAboutNursing.Org, Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH, and her group help to dispel some of the myths surrounding the stereotypes that nurses must endure. The nurses that these stereotypes are supposed to represent are completely at odds with what nurses actually do. They are introduced and perpetuated by the media so that the general public thinks this is what nurses are. For nurses to be respected, though, we must overcome these stereotypes and show what nursing really is. Not only does our profession depend on it, but the lives of our patients may depend on it, as well.

1. Angel

nurse-angel All nurses are angels. We are sent from above to provide other worldly care and make our patients feel like they are in heaven. The angel is unassuming, flinches at the sight of blood, and usually needs help finding their way out of a paper bag. Not only is this a sexist idealization of nursing, it is completely misguided. Yes, nurses save lives, and yes, nurses are often called angels by their patients. However, nurses are professionals.

We are not ones to shrink from a situation, and we certainly don’t need to turn to anyone other than our fellow nurses when there is a problem with a patient. The angel stereotype assumes that the nurse is a shrinking violet, most likely a female, who fluffs pillows and hands out orange juice. This is not nursing. Nursing can be surprisingly violent and dirty. It isn’t angelic to clean a trach or to perform post-mortem care. However, performing these duties are part of the sacred trust of the nursing profession, they don’t fit the stereotype of the sweet, clean, perfect, and unsullied angel that the media would have you believe that nurses are.

2. Battle-axe

Battle Axe The battle-axe is the nurse intimidator, so aptly portrayed by Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Surprisingly, this stereotype is seen in many different media outlets, and patients tend to believe that there are these super angry, sadistic nurses that are just waiting to pounce on them. Of course, the battle-axe runs in direct conflict with the angel. While one is sweet and kind, the other is the bitch. It should be noted that all of these stereotypes are distinctly female, keeping men from even considering nursing as a viable profession.

Nurses are not battle-axes any more than they are angels. Again, we are professionals, just trying to do a job. There are no angry, sadistic nurses who would treat patients poorly simply because they are having a bad day or because they’ve “been around the block.” The battle-axe stereotype is probably the most inexplicable. Who came up with this idea that nurses could be mean-spirited bitches? Nursing is hard work, and many of us are frustrated with the profession. However, that would never translate over into patient care.  If it did, we shouldn’t be nurses.

3. Naughty nurse

naughty-nurse Perhaps the most derogatory stereotype is the naughty nurse one. If you go into any Halloween store, you will find the costumes with the tight white dresses and the short white skirts. It is embarrassing to nurses and completely degrades the profession. The naughty nurse image turns nurses into a sexualized stereotype that is completely at odds with what nurses actually do in their job. Furthermore, it projects the image that female nurses are sex objects and can be treated as such by patients in the hospital setting.

Another byproduct of this issue is that men may not want to enter the profession because they don’t want to be a naughty nurse. They don’t want their own sexuality questioned because the general consensus is that a nurse is primarily a female sex object. This means that a great deal of male candidates would rule out nursing as a profession, and that can weaken nursing as a whole. You don’t need to be a feminist to see that the naughty nurse stereotype is dangerous. It is not just good clean fun. Nurses are put down by this view of them, but they can also be put in danger by men who think they are nothing more than sexualized, bed bath giving creatures of pleasure – not the medical professionals that they are.

4. Handmaiden

nurse-handmaiden A handmaiden is someone who is at the beck and call of someone else—in this case, the doctor. Nurses are sometimes seen as the ones who are commanded to do what the doctor says and run to fetch. The problem with this stereotype, besides being wrong, is that is sets up a situation in which nurses are seen as only doing work that is manual in nature. For instance, a nurse can give a bed bath, but not make a decision on holding a benzodiazepine on a confused patient. A handmaiden can fill water pitchers, but not listen for lung sounds and determine the difference between rales and rhonchi.  Handmaidens do physical work, not mental.

The public doesn’t understand what nurses do when it comes to the real intellectual work of the profession. Nurses use critical thinking as much as doctors. They often have to make decisions on the spot. They have to determine when to involve the doctors, and then they have to decide what the salient points are to relate to the doctor. Nurses are far more than handmaidens because they are far more than people who do physical work. While the physical work will always be a part of nursing, it is only a small part in this changing profession. In the past, it had a far more prevalent role, but the media has not caught up to how nursing has changed. The public just doesn’t really know what it takes to be a nurse in today’s health care world.

5. Unskilled

Unskilled Finally, the stereotype that ties all of them together is that nurses are generally unskilled. Everyone knows that doctors go through an intense amount of training and that they give orders. Everyone has this sense that there is a hierarchy in the medical system and that doctors head it. As a consequence, the public thinks that nurses are at the bottom, and they are therefore unskilled. As with any unskilled laborer, they would deserve less respect and would be replaceable. Of course, none of this is true because there is a marked difference in the skill set of a doctor and a nurse. It takes particular types of skills to work as a nurse, and saying a nurse is unskilled shows complete ignorance of what a nurse actually does.

Nurses assess, meaning that they look at a patient and determine health or disease. Nurses make independent diagnoses of their own and act on them, measuring the outcome of their actions. For instance, if a patient is suffering from chest congestion, in conjunction with the other health care professionals, nurses can implement treatments such as incentive spirometry and ambulation as allowable. They can also suggest to the health care team the possibility of starting albuterol treatments if they are not contraindicated. These are not the actions of an unskilled laborer. It takes a great deal of thought and skill to assess, diagnose, and treat these conditions, and this is only one example. Nurses are skilled in helping patients holistically, and this makes them vital cogs in the great machinery of health care.

In conclusion, nurse stereotypes are dangerous to nurses and the public alike. They are dangerous to nurses because they take away from the profession. People who may want to become nurses may not because they feel that nurses actually are this way. The media does nothing to change how nurses are portrayed and actually perpetuates these stereotypes. They do nothing to find out the truth. It is harmful to the public because nurses don’t get the funding, respect, or help they need to protect their profession. When nurses are degraded, patients suffer. Management sees nurses as expendable, and this means patients don’t get the best nurses or even enough nurses. In the end, stereotypes hurt patients, and it is time for the media to get it right. The health of millions literally hangs in the balance when nurses are disrespected.

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Lynda Lampert

Lynda Lampert, RN, has worked medical-surgical, telemetry, and intensive care units in her career. She has been freelancing for five years and lives in western Pennsylvania with her family and pets.
Lynda Lampert

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