TV shows suggest change in public perception

Ah, who can forget Dr. Marcus Welby, or the beneficent--if complicated--doctors of pop culture sensations like St. Elsewhere and ER. Though these characters do have flaws, TV doctors have continued to be larger-than-life heroes who work until they drop and seldom make an incorrect call.

Now, however, we're seeing the introduction of two mass market television dramas where nurses, not doctors, are the tough, hardworking saints of the hospital world. We've still got the nearly-infallible House MD, true, but the drug-addicted, bitter doctor is more of an anti-hero. 

Why do I bring this up? To my mind, the bottom line is that TV producers think the public has begun to acknowledge a nurse's role in the care process--and few professionals are better at gaging the public mood than TV execs, who live or die by reading trends. This shift in perception could have concrete consequences for healthcare organizations, who are likely to begin getting complaints if nurses seem to be abused, neglected or stretched too thin on the job.

The shows' tones clearly casts nurses as the linchpins of healthcare. Nurse Jackie, for example, stars the Sopranos' Edie Falco as a hard-bitten, cynical nurse who, nonetheless, deals out compassion and kindness to every patient she encounters. She's more than a bit skeptical about doctors: "Doctors don't heal, they diagnose--we heal," she says. Arguable, but as the star of the show, she's clearly articulating the show's viewpoint.

The other show, HawthoRNe, stars Jada Pinkett Smith as a cool, professional nurse executive who's desperately trying to keep it together after the death of her husband. Pinkett's HawthoRNe is a highly sympathetic figure, as are other nurses on the show, many of whom must go to the mat to protect their patients from careless or arrogant physicians.

Please understand, I am very pro-doctor and pro-nurse. I'm not trying to suggest that these shows have somehow blown the lid off the "real" physician-nurse relationship. And there's no way patients will suddenly storm hospital Bastilles demanding higher pay or shorter shifts for nurses.

What I am saying, however, is that public perception matters, and that these shows should be taken seriously. In many situations, nurses deserve more credit than they get, and these shows are likely to drive that point home with consumers. That, in turn, could erode public support for facilities that engage in any tactics seen as union-busting or exploitive. The truth is, sometimes TV is as important as real life. Consider yourself warned. - Anne