The white dress, emblazoned with a red medical cross, might be one of the most well-known fiction tropes about nursing, but it isn’t the only one—not by a longshot. In TV shows, movies, books, and more, nurses are often depicted in stereotypically inaccurate ways. Those misrepresentations paint a wildly incomplete picture of nursing’s role in patient care, often leading to real patients who misunderstand the crucial role nurses play in their care.
ONS member Stephanie Sauvinet, BSN, RN, OCN®, BMTCN, operations coordinator at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans and published fiction writer, is challenging the ways nurses are represented in popular culture and media. Through her own writing, along with a series of blog posts about nursing and medical mistakes in fiction, Sauvinet is educating readers and authors alike about the most common mistakes used to portray nurses in entertainment.
“The misrepresentation of nurses, and other medical professionals for that matter, is one of my pet peeves. Nurses choose to give of themselves every day to their patients. It is not fair to the sacrifices nurses make to misrepresent their role in the medical field,” Sauvinet says. “Most people don’t know where the exact scope of nursing care falls, and, by misrepresenting nurses, readers and viewers have a skewed understanding of what being a nurse is about.”
Misrepresenting nursing goes beyond a lack of understanding for patients. It can be damaging to the profession as a whole.
“Other medical professionals, namely physicians, are misrepresented as well. But their education and degree still warrant respect. Society still has a systematically ingrained reverence for their profession,” Sauvinet notes. “Nurses can be compared to MDs in terms of their misrepresentation, but for nursing it supports a climate of distrust and disrespect for the ‘less-educated’ nursing profession. Instead of fostering the important concept of teamwork by portraying medical professionals as separate moving parts that lead to effective medical care, the misrepresentation of nurses concocts an atmosphere of friction, disorganization, and unfounded conflict that drives current and future patients to distrust their medical professional.”
Misconceptions about nursing have been rampant in popular works of fiction for decades. Sauvinet recognizes the subtle and not-so-subtle roles nurses have been pigeonholed into in popular culture—that is, if they’re present at all.
“TV medical shows are the biggest culprits of misrepresentation of nurses, and that’s if they’re represented at all,” Sauvinet says. “In the rare cases when nurses are present, their role is diminutive or driven by prejudice. Nurses are usually represented as female and subservient to doctors who are often cast as male. We’re shown wide-eyed and shell-shocked, unable to perform any medical care without being barked at by an MD. A lot of nurses are represented as unprofessional by portraying behavior like taking selfies at the nurses’ station, being uncaring, being rude to patients, or having an attitude with doctors or by the show suggesting that nurses are insignificant to the medical care given to patients. These representations go against core nursing attributes. In fact, an uncaring, self-centered, unprofessional person would most likely walk away from the real-life responsibilities of being a nurse.”
Sauvinet’s writing is mostly in science fiction, and her medical background and experience allow her to infuse her writing with a sense of hard science, reality, and accuracy. Working in futuristic settings gives her the setting and opportunity to imagine the future of nursing in her stories.
“As a science fiction writer, it is interesting to imagine the future of the nursing profession because it makes me excited about its evolution and allows me to think beyond our current practice,” Sauvinet says. “Being a nurse has allowed me to witness an array of human personalities and reactions in the face of hardship, grief, and death. It’s been a gift that’s allowed me to represent emotions and characters in a more truthful light.”
Answering Her Calling in Writing and Patient Care
Sauvinet, who has pursued writing since middle school, notes that she was drawn to many aspects of nursing.
“The nursing profession is considered a calling—all the more so as an oncology nurse. People’s reaction to hearing I’m an oncology nurse is usually a pause or a grimace paired with an ‘I’m sorry; that must be hard,” Sauvinet says. “I think this stems from the distorted and prejudiced view of what cancer care entails. Making a difference in patients’ and family members’ lives is what nurses aspire to do, and dealing with cancer allows us to do exactly that. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling career.”
Sauvinet’s passion for reading and writing has helped her daily practice in different, intangible ways. Sometimes it’s the little things that help bridge the gaps in patient care, Sauvinet suggests.
“Although vastly different, both oncology nursing and fiction writing seem to affect each other. Patients constantly hear about their diagnosis, treatment plan, side effects, and more while in the hospital. Something as random as noticing a book on patients’ bedside tables and striking up a conversation about it can put their illness on the backburner for a moment.”
Sauvinet says her writing helps her practice self-care by processing the more difficult moments of oncology practice. In a field that can be faced with tough realities, she finds different ways to cope and understand through her own writing.
“Although cancer care is an extremely fulfilling career, it would not be fair to ignore the devastating consequences associated with cancer,” Sauvinet notes. “Writing is an outlet. Faced with the hardships of a nursing career, many of us love to escape to a more positive place. Writing allows me to hope for a better life—not in an idealistic way but in an extrapolation of the current climate. At the fork in the road, I get to imagine characters taking the right path, doing the right thing, and aspiring for something better.”
Advocating for Positive Representation in Fiction
Dispelling misconceptions about nursing practice is necessary to ensure patients fully understand the importance of the nurse to the success of their own care. Oncology nurses and other medical professionals can advocate for the realistic portrayal of their roles. According to Sauvinet, setting the record straight is often a question of accountability.
“Nurses should definitely advocate for realistic representation of their profession,” Sauvinet says. “Holding writers and producers accountable for what they put on screen, demanding the use of expert consultants, and encouraging accuracy over drama are just a few ways to do this. Perhaps encourage writers to insert disclaimers if they choose drama over voracity in character portrayal.”
Nurses face misrepresentations of their practice daily. But by providing expert, patient-centered care, they’re challenging notions and breaking stereotypes. Sauvinet takes those challenges a step further, encouraging accurate portrayal of nurses in others' as well as her own writing—both now and in the distant, futuristic worlds she creates.