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How the Public's Perception of Nursing Impacts the Profession

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Nurses are intimately involved in the well-being and health of those in their community. It's their duty to care for others physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because this care often relies on patient compliance, the public's perception of nursing has significant impacts on the profession.

History of nursing's perception

Stereotypes: Historically, nursing was considered a pink-collar profession -- jobs traditionally done by women. This originated from the idea that women were natural caretakers, and nursing became an extension of this societal standard. Nursing was considered a secondary role to the traditionally male doctor. This misogynistic frame of mind led to the many stereotypes that remain today. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts work to eliminate this antiquated view of the profession. 

Media Portrayal: The portrayal of nurses in media such as prime time television and movies does not always do the profession justice either. For decades, nurses were only cast as women and were traditionally background characters acting on the periphery or supporting male doctors, surgeons, etc. 

Many female nurses have courageously shared their stories and lobbied for better policies to be put in place to protect them. In 2019, members of the Royal College of Nursing told their annual congress that the portrayal of nursing in mainstream media undermined their professionalism and increased the risk of abuse by the public. The portrayal and sexualization of nurses by mainstream media is not only inherently false, but highly dangerous for females in the profession.

How COVID impacted the perception

The COVID-19 pandemic brought immense pain and challenges to the profession. But one positive outcome has been the public giving nurses the recognition they deserve. During the pandemic, nurses were recognized as essential workers and were among the small group of professionals working overtime at the peak of the pandemic. During an unprecedented time in history, the public finally realized how crucial nurses are to society. Without their knowledge, expertise, compassion, and sacrifice, society itself would likely not have survived a pandemic of this scale. 

Research of the public's perception of nursing reveals that 81% of people believe that nursing is a favorable career choice. Public perception has heightened in response to daily news accounts of nurses working long hours in unsafe conditions, and dealing with increased patient loads without adequate resources or support. 

Holly Kalua, BSHA, BSM, RN, CHBC, reflected on how COVID impacted public perception by saying, "The pandemic pulled the curtain back on the intensity of the workplace stress that nurses go through daily. With the healthcare crisis that COVID-19 created, a new appreciation emerged for nurses, as they were considered heroes for working extensive hours under extraordinary and excruciating circumstances." 

Not all perceptions were changed, unfortunately. "However, it did not remove the stereotype of nursing being a subordinate healthcare profession, considered a hospital expense, and still lacking an adequate voice in healthcare policy," added Kalua. 

The past few years did however bring new opportunities to combat the pandemic such a travel assignments, telehealth opportunities, and financial bonuses. These opportunities inspired younger generations to choose nursing as a career. With retirement and the ongoing nurse shortage, this influx of young nurses during the pandemic was more necessary than ever.

Post-COVID perception

As the pandemic restrictions started to lift and the number of patients decreased, so did the appreciation for the nurses who remained on the frontlines. While society began to heal from COVID, the nursing profession now must deal with the onset of new post-pandemic challenges. Some nurses are still working with dangerously high patient-to-nurse ratios and not receiving adequate support from healthcare superiors. 

Nurses going on strike are advocating for the safety of their patients and the support from their superiors. However, the public's view of nurses has shifted drastically following the pandemic. This has left nurses to fend for themselves against unsafe and unfair working conditions. Striking nurses in the UK were met with public support, but the same has not necessarily been the case for nurses here in the U.S.

Why this matters

The well-being of the nursing profession and that of the public truly go hand in hand. It’s society’s fundamental duty to support nurses so that they can perform to the best of their abilities.

When Stacey Boetto, FNP-C, was asked if the public’s perception of nursing matters to her, she replied, “Absolutely the public’s perception of nursing matters to me. It should to all of us. We are an elite group of professionals doing extraordinary things in many ways.”

Nadine Yohn, RN, added, “For me it all comes down to respect toward me as a human being —the education I worked so hard to achieve and an understanding as to how much I respect you and want to help you.”

Nurses deserve to feel mutual respect and care from those who they have dedicated their lives to serving. By doing so, healthcare delivery would be improved through:

  • More satisfied/fulfilled nurses providing better patient care
  • Better care partner collaboration with patients if patients respect nursing care as much as they should
  • The nursing shortage benefiting from a positive public perception of nursing - increasing the candidate pool

The weight of public's perception of nursing

Negative perceptions could have dire consequences. Public perception, mainstream media portrayals, and dismantling stereotypes are all critical pieces to providing support to all professions -- especially nursing. 

Nursing has historically been presented with several narratives that they have continuously worked to overcome. It is society's responsibility to uphold the truth and give respect to the dedicated, intelligent, and hardworking individuals in the nursing profession. 

How does the public's perception of nursing impact your practice? Comment below and talk to your fellow nurses about this topic. Download the Nurse.com social networking app today.