A university photography competition has encouraged nursing students to become active producers, not passive consumers of their representation in the media and identity, writes Linda Belardi.
Negative and inaccurate images of nursing misinform the public and disempower the profession, says professor of nursing Margaret McAllister.
If people think that nursing work is menial and submissive, it undermines the important role that nurses play in saving patients’ lives. This can lead to the marginalisation of nursing from health policy and planning, and the recruitment of students unsuited to the demanding and complex work of nursing, she said.
To help counter harmful stereotyping, nursing students at the University of the Sunshine Coast were asked last month to take part in a photo competition in which they were asked to depict a contemporary image of nursing and to challenge outdated ideas.
From a pool of 20 entries, three photographs were singled out for their creativity and depth of meaning. Bachelor of Nursing Science student Larissa Jenkins was awarded first and third prizes for her photographic entries.
Her winning image, which depicted a nurse wearing surgical gloves, featured written descriptions of the many important roles that nurses play in the healthcare system.
Another photo that she took, of a nurse assisting a young patient, won third prize, behind an image by Master of Midwifery student Stephanie Nudd of a nurse’s hands cradling a fob watch.
Jenkins said she found the experience empowering.
“In nursing, your tools are your hands and using those hands I wanted to show that nurses are equally all of these roles – collaborator, educator, listener and investigator.”
In her third-placed image, the nurse has made a deliberate attempt to get down to the level of the patient and engage the child in their own care through play. By attempting to make the unfamiliar familiar, the nurse is minimising the child’s anxieties and interacting with them on their own level.
Second-place winner Nudd said that the historical and contemporary representation of nursing was out-of-step with the reality of the job. “Nursing has changed so much and it is important to acknowledge it for the profession that it is,” she said.
Both winners, who are also sisters, said they enjoyed reflecting on what nursing meant to them.
McAllister said the university wanted to raise students’ awareness of the power of the image and to take back some of the control over the public representation of nursing.
“The students felt that they had become producers of a positive image of nursing and not just passive consumers of an outdated imaged portrayed by the media and marketing companies,” she said.
It would also help to challenge unproductive, misleading and stereotypical messages about nursing, in a similar manner to an American website, The Truth About Nursing (www.truthaboutnursing.org/).
McAllister said stereotyped and outdated images of nursing often depicted them as “doers, not thinkers” and revived old debates over the education and training of nurses.
There is also an assumption that university education for nursing is a recent development, despite its nearly 50-year history, she said.
"[The media] want us to criticise university education as being irrelevant for nurses. For me, that is a sexist notion. The [assumption being that because] nurses are mainly women they don’t need to be educated, they just need to be trained.”
Even popular medical shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy often depicted nursing care but erroneously attributed it to doctors, said McAllister.
Another widespread misunderstanding or fear in the community was that if nurses became too good at decision-making they would replace doctors. “There is a fear that the nurse practitioner movement could be a danger to good health care when in fact it is an asset.”
She said these stereotypes filtered into assumptions about the authority, status and public voice of nursing. “Nurses want to be involved in public and policy debate about health reform, but they are overlooked,” she said.
“There is a belief that nurses can’t articulate their practices and that’s a myth because a lot of nurses are just dying to be asked a question.”
McAllister said portrayals of nursing do not adequately reflect the range of environments or practices that nurses engage in.
“Unless the media start representing the diversity of nursing practice, the public won’t realise that they can access nurses for interventions in schools, they can request a nurse in a general practice setting or that nurses can come and visit them at home. It’s also nurses who are at the end of community health information telephone lines but many people don’t realise it.”
A recent study of university nursing school websites found they were perpetuating narrow perspectives on nursing. The study, conducted by Denise McGarry, found that the marketing content failed to represent the wide scope of environments in which nurses practice.
A more informed public who knew about the diversity and complexity of nursing would actually help to attract well-suited students and prepare them for the learning ahead, said McAllister.
Poor representations of nursing in the media not only make for a poorly informed public, they have subtle and overt consequences for health policy, planning and the marginalisation of nursing.
If nurses are silent in public debates about the depiction and value of their work, the consequences are chronic underfunding of nursing research, education and clinical practice.
The competition coincided with International Nurses Day celebrated last month.
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