Public health research shows that the media affects how the public think about nurses and nursing as a profession.
Many health reports in print and electronic media relegate the views of nurses to general experiences while expert opinions are reserved for physicians.
This has, over time, influenced misconceptions and stereotypes of nurses.
One stereotype that is especially damaging to the profession is that the role of a nurse is to fetch things for physicians, especially during surgical procedures.
But nurses do much more than physicians, who, unfortunately, get credit for all the meaningful work done.
Another is that nurses are uneducated and cannot make rational decisions on the welfare of patients without consulting physicians.
If nurses did not double-check and question physicians’ diagnoses and treatment, that would be malpractice.
Nurses usually have a better idea of a patient’s doing; their job is to protect the patient.
The third is of a self-sacrificing angel of mercy who does not mind being overworked and underpaid.
That explains why cases of industrial action by nurses have increased, especially in developing countries.
Another setback of this stereotype is the massive brain drain of developed countries in search of better life.
Then, of course, is the negative female sexuality stereotype that depicts nurses as sex objects.
Research shows that nurses suffer an inordinate amount of sexual and other abuse at work.
These stereotypes persist as they are largely accepted in many media platforms and have been identified as among factors that inhibit the ability of nurses to provide quality patient care.
What can nurses do about it?
There is the widely accepted thinking that it’s better for nurses to keep their mouths closed — which may have evolved from the fact that the first nurses were nuns.
Even while working, nurses rarely speak about what they are doing and what they observe.
It is hard for people to learn about nursing through ‘collective closed-mouth policy’. Nurses need to be advocates of the profession.
They need to initiate partnership with the media since there are many of them who can be resources for journalists, bloggers and editors.
Nurses need to embrace communication technology, including social media, to sensitise the public on what they do including highlighting their success stories.
Many nurses are going out of their way to improve the morbidity and mortality statistics in their regions by initiating innovative community health projects but these efforts are neither recognised nor appreciated.
Finally, nurses need to pursue other avenues of conflict resolution, especially on their welfare, other than constantly resorting to industrial action as that fuels their negative image.
SOSPETER NDABA KIMANI is a programme manager at Aga Khan Development Network.