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Out to debunk flight nursing’s glossy image

Pencil skirts, high heels and immaculate hair – these are things you likely won’t see during a flight with an aeromedical service. Yet, images of nurses donning these looks can be traced back through popular literature for decades.

This is one of the key points Flinders University PhD candidate Genevieve Brideson addresses in the article "Images of flight nursing in Australia: A study using institutional ethnography", recently published in the journal Nursing & Health Sciences.

"The traditional romantic image of an Australian aeromedical service is a male doctor and male pilot, out to rescue the male stockman from the red dust of the Australian outback," the paper reads. "However, the reality is considerably different, particularly in the current context of the Australian healthcare system."

Brideson examined images of flight nursing in popular literature from the early 1940s through to the present. She says nurses are not looked at as playing a large role in aeromedicine. "There's such a paucity about flight nursing in the peer-reviewed literature. I want to address the myths that doctors are always present in the back of the aircraft … [and] nurses are the handmaidens and not actual care providers."

The paper says where there is no objective evidence, the knowledge gap in the public’s imagination is fuelled by popular media images and assumptions.

"There was a program back in the '80s to '90s called The Flying Doctors that was put forward by Crawford Productions, and that portrayed the flight nurse as a handmaiden in the back of the aircraft along for the ride with the doctor," Brideson tells Nursing Review. "I want to work on dispelling all those incorrect images about flight nurses' work."

She also details some of the other images from popular literature that misrepresent the work of flight nurses, including a book painting the profession as glamorous and a comic book cover featuring two characters standing in the aircraft doorway about to leap out, their lipstick applied and their hair immaculate, despite the slipstream.

Brideson, who has worked as a flight nurse, says the truth is many of the outfits worn in these images are not feasible due to the environment these professionals work in and their day-to-day tasks. "We're looking to provide quality care to patients as our main aim, so that always comes first, not how the flight nurse is dressed, what their hair's like, whether they've got lipstick on or not."

She says: "What I wanted to do with this study is to try to illuminate the reasons behind why flight nurses have remained invisible within the literature, and look at increasing other health professionals' and the general public's knowledge about flight nursing and the work flight nurses do."

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