Standing up for nursing

What can we do to improve the increasingly negative public perception of nurses? Telling our positive stories would help

Next time you are asked what it is like to be a nurse, what will you say? What story will you tell?

It seems, you see, that the public is beginning to perceive nurses as uncaring. Mid Staffs, seemingly numerous investigations into nursing homes, the ‘too posh to wash’ allegation… none of these has helped the image of nurses and nursing.

So how has the profession responded? With self-confidence? Hardly.

Rightly, there has been denunciation of awful failures, but the overall impression has been one of hand-wringing and introspection.

Given the declining public image of nursing, nurses must surely be fed up. You might think they must be leaving the profession in their droves. Actually, no. Data from the NMC suggest only a slight upward trend for leavers in the last couple of years, and overall there are more qualified nurses (around 680,000 on the register) than there were five years ago. And the number of those returning to work after a career break is up since 2009 (approximately 930 versus 880).

I asked friends for their thoughts on nursing’s image. Admittedly, there was much anger and dismay, particularly about media ‘attacks’ on nurses, a declining value placed on public service, and the effect of spending cuts. But there was also one striking comment to the effect that nursing can be a fantastic job and that helping people makes you feel good.

The thing is, the pressures in the NHS are staggering, but many nurses love their jobs. Mental health nurse Nathan Filer may have won the Costa Book Award and pocketed the £30,000 prize money recently, but has reportedly said he has no intention of leaving nursing behind.

There are other, heroic, stories such as those of Helene Donnelly, the whistleblower of Mid Staffs. But more everyday stories of nurses’ care and compassion can be just as inspiring.

So why don’t we hear more about these? Why aren’t nurses telling the public how much they are worth? Why doesn’t the profession seem confident enough to stand up for itself?

One factor might be that it is so much easier to be assertive and confident if you feel valued and supported.

Do nurses feel supported by their employers and professional bodies? I suspect that the picture is as mixed as it was when I was on the wards, which was a few years ago now.

Yet nurses, both individually and as a body, have a choice. They can internalise the negative image of nursing, or they can stand up and try to change minds in society, in individual organisations, and even in the profession itself.

Nurses, nursing groups and those affected by nursing have so many positive, life-changing stories to tell about the value of nursing in people’s lives, and there are so many opportunities to do so now, using modern media.

Nursing’s place in a changing society is under scrutiny as never before. Now is not the time for diffidence. There are many stories to tell, many lives and minds to change. So why not make a start?

About the author

Ed Rowe trained at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, in the late 1980s and practised in general surgery. He now works as a medical copy editor and is a stay-at-home dad.

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