Nurses on TV

September 11, 2009
Lisa Schulmeister

Nurses have lots to say about how they are portrayed in new shows.

Unlike the majority of physician-centered medical dramas on television, two new shows focus on nurses. HawthoRNe stars Jada Pinkett-Smith as chief nursing officer Christina Hawthorne, "heading up a group of dedicated nurses at Richmond Trinity Hospital who spend long days and nights on the hospital’s front lines. Hawthorne is the kind of nurse you want on your side when you or someone you love is in the hospital. She is the kind of nurse who fights for her patients and doesn’t let them slip through the cracks. When necessary, she takes on doctors and administrators who are overworked, distracted or just unable to see the human being behind the hospital chart" (TNT, "About the Show").

The other program is Showtime's Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco as a seasoned emergency department nurse. "Nurse Jackie Peyton is far from ordinary. She navigates the rough waters of a crumbling healthcare system, doing everything she can to provide her patients with the best care possible. Whether she’s lighting into a smug doctor for failing to heed her advice, or stealing a fat money clip from a man who stabbed a prostitute and giving it to a pregnant widow, or forging the organ donor card of a man who just died, Jackie Peyton is compelled to make sense of the chaos and to level the playing field whenever she can. Right or wrong, it’s Jackie’s brand of justice all made that more manageable by a daily diet of prescription pain medication" (Showtime, "Characters").

Although both networks (TNT and Showtime) say that critics are raving about the shows, there is growing concern in the nursing community about how nurses are portrayed. Nurses' blog posts reveal how many nurses feel.

"In my 25 years of nursing, I've never come across, and never will, a CNO or nurse as Hawthorne. Hollywood once again fails the nursing profession. The flaws its portrayal of nurses are obvious to those engaged in the profession, but to the general public, whom might not be aware of the complexities in the nursing profession, it presents a totally false picture.

Another wasted opportunity to exalt nursing," wrote one nurse.

Another wrote, "People need to remember that Nurse Jackie is a work of FICTION. Jackie is obviously a very good nurse, and no, she would not be working today. As far as Hawthorne is concerned, you would never see a CNO out taking care of patients. The position involves paperwork and more paperwork and punishment for those who do not follow rules. Not to mention meeting after meeting, and meetings to schedule other meetings."

Perhaps this nurse said it best, "Nobody is learning what nurses do from these shows. They are seeing either unethical, immoral behavior, or practices not consistent with the nurse's job title. Nurses do not have to behave as though they are better and smarter than anyone else, nor do they perform dangerous practices just because someone told them to. Nursing is indeed very complex and difficult. Nurse Jackie would have lost her license a long time ago. It's too bad that we can't have an entertaining show that really shows what nurses do."