The biggest differences between on-screen and real-life nursing


iStock | BraunS
iStock | BraunS

Some people learn everything they know about nursing as a profession from television shows and movies. Those are the people whose attitudes about nursing are the most annoying.

Real-life nursing and fictional nursing don’t have a thing to do with one another, obviously, but stereotypes are hard to get over. Unless you’re willing to go into back stories on shows, nurses barely exist. Barely isn’t not-at-all, though.

So what are the biggest differences between on-screen and real-life nursing?

Normally, you never see nurses in medical dramas (except for Scrubs and the occasional reality show). End up in the hospital for real, though, and nurses are pretty much all you see. When you’re sick, doctors might visit for five or 10 minutes—or more if you’re in the ICU. Most of your care is delivered by nurses and ancillary personnel. All the docs do is show up, examine, issue orders and take off.

Not to downplay their role, to be sure, but the difference between House and real life is huge. All you need to see, as a medical professional, is the episode in which residents do all the scans and all the pathology for a patient with a copper allergy. Given the demands on residents’ time, it’s insane to think that any one of them would be stuck down in the path lab or MRI suite, pushing buttons or staring at slides. Even the best-funded hospital system in real life couldn’t manage that.

Moreover, nurses on TV aren’t the ones prepping the patient for surgery or adjusting drips. Even the most basic jobs are done by doctors—the nurses simply don’t show up. Now, I understand the demands of drama, but that’s ridiculous. Time after time, we’re relegated to non-speaking roles, stuck in the background of dramatic scenes or running down the hallway pushing a gurney. Since we’re invisible onscreen, we’re often invisible in real life.

Unless, of course, some genius makes a crack on daytime TV about how we wear “doctor’s stethoscopes” and “dress up” in “costume” to do our jobs.

Can you imagine what might change if we were portrayed realistically in TV dramas and in the movies? Kids might grow up wanting to be a nurse as much as they do a doctor or a fireman or a pathologist (okay, I’m reaching with that last one). Senators and legislators might pay attention to our concerns about the state of healthcare. Irritating Halloween costumes like “Sexy Nurse” or “Cute Nurse” might actually cease to exist. Men might actually join the profession in larger numbers.

Overall, I can’t imagine a downside to a realistic portrayal of nursing onscreen. Unless they didn’t filter out our more raunchy language. That might be a problem—it’s hard to convince people to take jobs that might leave their ears peeled back.

Agatha Lellis
Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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