NEW YORK NURSE: April 2007
by Joely Johnson
In today’s healthcare environment, promoting a clear image of nursing is more important than ever.
Nurses’ responsibilities have expanded and patient care has become more technologically complex. The caps and white uniforms are gone. And nurses are depicted inaccurately on TV, in print, and on film.
NYSNA’s Expanded Council on Nursing Practice (CNP) recently formed a subcommittee dedicated to raising awareness of the professional image of nurses.
Many health facilities have loosened strict dress codes, making the starched white uniform – indeed, almost any nursing-specific uniform – a thing of the past. Dressing for comfort rather than appearance has become popular. The variety of looks for nurses, however, can make it tricky for patients to pick out the RN from the nutritionist, receptionist, or physical therapist.
“I will admit I was glad to see the uniform go away,” says Marion Spector, chair of NYSNA’s Providers of Continuing Education/Staff Development Functional Practice Unit (FPU). “But white can make it easier for patients to recognize you. What you wear also truly affects how you see yourself and how you act.”
Other nurses say your image depends more on your attitude than on your clothing. Janice Viola, member-at-large of NYSNA’s Retired Nurses FPU, wore scrubs for her entire 45-year career – and felt respectable every day on the job. “You can wear scrubs and not look unkempt,” she said. “Your manner is even more important than your appearance in presenting yourself as a professional.”
In the workplace, RNs are the image of nursing to their colleagues, as well as to patients. It’s up to nurses to present themselves in a way that commands respect. “We need to lead by example,” said Viola. “Acting as a professional among other professionals will elevate our image in their eyes.”
Nurses don’t finish school one day and suddenly become polished healthcare professionals the next. The awareness of nursing as a profession begins in school, but needs time to mature, according to Christine Saltzberg, assistant professor of nursing at the University of New Hampshire and member of the NYSNA Board of Directors. “Professionalism develops through processes such as orientation, precepting, and mentoring,” she says. But it doesn’t stop there.
Lifelong learning for all nurses also contributes to this development. Formal continuing education will expand nursing expertise. Professional nurses also need to develop the confidence and assertiveness to face the unique challenges of the field. Listening to the experiences of other nurses, sharing your own wisdom, networking with nursing organizations, and speaking out in the community are all powerful ways to develop and display the professional image of nursing.
What nurses can learn and do on their own is multiplied many times when nurses network with each other. Joining NYSNA is one great step toward leveraging that collective power, whether or not you belong to a bargaining unit. Becoming part of your district nurses’ association will localize and concentrate your connection to other RNs in your area.
Professional events are energizing places to see and be seen in the larger community of nurses. Yearly gatherings such as Lobby Day and Convention remind nurses of their important role in society and refresh tired attitudes.
“It is at Convention, and in various committees and groups, that we get to network with wonderful people, friends and colleagues. We need to become and remain actively involved in our beloved profession — it is who we are,” said Viola.
The public takes its cues from the media, which is where outspoken nurses can focus their image-monitoring efforts.
Inaccurate images of nursing can worsen the nursing shortage by deterring new recruits and encouraging veterans to leave the profession. Presenting nurses as sexually available promotes workplace violence, and showing nurses as passive helpers damages professional morale.
“We need to do whatever we can to articulate the reality of our work to the public,” said Elisa Mancuso, chair of NYSNA’s Parent-Child Health Nursing Clinical Practice Unit (CPU).
You can help quash negative nursing stereotypes. Whenever you see or hear inaccurate depictions of nursing, contact the responsible media outlet. Write a letter to the editor or producer. Check the Internet for phone numbers and e-mail addresses for newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, film companies, and other businesses that make impressions on the public. And if you hear of a reporter wanting to interview a “real nurse,” why not be the one to do the talking?
When you do speak out, don’t be afraid to speak up. “It will take some strong role models to stand up and say, wait, this is what nursing is really all about,” said Mancuso. To make your point more powerful, stick to the facts when describing why the image is inaccurate. And be sure to sign your full name, including your RN credentials, to validate your complaint and show that “real nurses” take their professional image seriously.
You can also talk back to the media through The Center for Nursing Advocacy (www.nursingadvocacy.org). According to a protest letter drafted by the Center and signed by hundreds of its members, “A key reason that nursing is in its current state – understaffed, underfunded, and underempowered – is that the work of nurses is undervalued by the general public and health care decision makers, all of whom are consumers of media and advertising.”
The Center is a nonprofit group that monitors the media and sponsors letter-writing and e-mail campaigns to protest inaccurate images of nursing.