Skepticism and some optimism surround new nurse dramas

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Two new fictional nurses, “Jackie Peyton” (portrayed in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie) and “Christina Hawthorne” (TNT’s HawthoRNe), will light up TV screens in the next two weeks. In the fall, NBC will introduce “Veronica Callahan” when it premieres the nursing drama Mercy. But how the shows will affect real world nurses has come into question.

“Television shows largely depict physician characters doing the work that nurses do in real life,” says Sandy Summers, RN, MSN, MPH, founder and executive director of The Truth About Nursing, and co-author of Saving Lives: Why the Media’s Portrayal of Nurses Puts Us All at Risk. “Hollywood media shows physicians performing triage, defibrillation, patient education, IV medication administration, providing 24/7 surveillance, and handling complex ICU machinery—this is all exciting, dramatic work of nursing that nurses deserve credit for.”

The debut of Nurse Jackie on June 8 and HawthoRNe on June 16 will bring nurses back in the limelight as the shows’ main characters. It’s been more than 15 years since a nurse-centered TV series (NBC’s Nurses) aired in the U.S., despite the myriad of emerging medical shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy, House, Scrubs, and ER.

While Summers is happy nurses are getting more TV exposure, she stresses the damages current dramas have on the profession.

“Career seekers who want to pursue careers with autonomy look elsewhere,” she says. “Who would want the job of nursing as it is portrayed on House or Grey’s Anatomy? Nurses barely exist on those shows, but to the extent they do appear, they are fawning or bitter lackeys—the lowly clean-up crew of healthcare.” Such depictions, Summers says, will not lead to funding for nursing practice, education, or research.

So will the upcoming shows accurately illustrate the lives of real nurses or support some of Hollywood’s longstanding stereotypes?

Much controversy already surrounds the dark comedy, Nurse Jackie, which will capture Peyton’s life as an ED nurse working at a New York City hospital. Peyton’s depicted drug addiction to Oxycontin pills, for one, has ignited some heated debates among nurses.
“I think many nurses are having a reflexive negative reaction to Nurse Jackie,” says Summers. “But it provides us with so many opportunities to change how the public thinks about nursing and to change how nurses think about the media. [The Truth About Nursing’s] main goal is to get nurses and the public—like it or not—to watch the show and talk about what nursing is, what it is not, and what it should and could be.”

Adrianne E. Avillion, DEd, RN, owner of Avillion’s Curriculum Design in York, PA, who has more than 30 years of nursing experience, also has a strong distaste for today’s onscreen nurses and believes a nurse consultant is needed on the set of the shows to infuse some much-needed realism. “The portrayal is horrific,” she says, adding that ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and House are some of the worst abusers. “The view of nursing is that the only thing we are capable of doing is nodding when the doctors say ‘Do this and do that.’”

Avillion’s opinion on Mercy doesn’t seem more promising. The show will follow the happenings of a hospital through Callahan, who just returned from a tour in Iraq, and two other nurses. According to the NBC Web site, the show will also include interactive digital features, such as a “Test Your Nursing Skills” quiz with first aid questions and answers. The concept came across demeaning to Avillion.

“Just get right on there,” she says “Anybody can do it. Anybody can be a nurse …There’s nothing about ‘Test Your Doctor Skills.’”

HawthoRNe, which stars Jada Pinkett Smith, appears to deliver more optimism. As a chief nursing officer, Hawthorne is depicted as a hero who “prides herself on standing up for her patients and preventing them from falling through the cracks of hospital bureaucracy,” states TNT’s Web site.

Regardless of how the shows unfold, Summers will view them as mediums to reshape nursing’s image.

“Each show looks promising in its own way, but we won't know more until we see the full episodes,” says Summers. “And even after they air, I’m sure there will be things we think work well to educate the world about nursing and things that reinforce longstanding stereotypes. But there seems to be basic understanding on each of the shows that stereotypes need to be broken.”