9 Nursing Stereotypes That Are Just Plain Wrong

illustrated nurse on tv screen 

Every career has its stereotypes. Most people have a mental image of the nerdy, glasses-wearing accountant or the quirky, free-thinking designer. Even though career stereotypes can be wildly inaccurate, it’s hard for professionals to shake these labels.

It comes as no surprise to nurses that RNs experience their share of stereotypes as well. We rounded up a list of the most common nursing stereotypes from RNs who have heard it all. Take a look to see whether your least favorite nursing stereotype made the list, and join us as we set the record straight.

9 Nursing stereotypes we could do without

The world is full of people making broad assumptions about entire groups of people based on anecdotes (or what they want to believe)—and not even nurses are immune. Here are a few stereotypes and assumptions:

1. “Nursing is a woman’s job”

While it’s true the profession has historically been dominated by women, the historical view just doesn’t hold up today. This old gender stereotype continues to persist, despite Census Bureau statistics reporting that the number of male RNs more than tripled between 1970 and 2011.1 In some specialties, like nurse anesthetists, the ratio of male nurses to female nurses is nearing an even split. This shift in demographic makeup is a positive step, but male nurses still run into stereotyping and preconceptions from patients and coworkers.

“All of the female nurses would scrutinize me to find out what ‘kind’ of male nurse I was,” says CRNA Nick Angelis of Alleviant Health Centers. As a former agency nurse, Angelis says his coworkers would often try to size him up in an attempt to pigeonhole him as either a “macho male RN” or an “effeminate male nurse.” Despite experiences like these, male nurses (and female medical professionals outside of nursing) remain valuable parts of a medical team. Men who have a passion for medicine and caring for others shouldn’t shy away from the field because of this tired stereotype.

2. “Nurses are too busy to get to know their patients”

Many people think nurses are perpetually busy due to the nursing shortage, with RNs rushing through one patient interaction so they can get to the next. While there are certainly nurses with a lot of patients to care for, this stereotype doesn’t take into account that many nurses still do whatever they can to slow down and spend as much time with their patients as possible.

“Talking with my patients is actually my favorite part of the job,” says Allie Woods, RN and online breastfeeding educator at Milk & Mother. “Charting can wait. I’m never too busy to get to know you or help you talk through something.”

3. “Nurses are just doctors’ personal assistants”

Nurses are much more than just assistants to the “real” medical professionals. RNs undergo in-depth medical training and are knowledgeable in their areas of expertise. They don’t just follow doctors’ orders; they work on a team alongside doctors and other medical specialists to provide patient care.

Nurses spend much of their time face-to-face with patients, which makes them well-suited to monitor a patient’s condition. Registered nurses are trained to alert the care team if there are any significant changes to a patient’s condition and in many cases make their own judgments about a patient’s diagnosis and outcome goals.

4. “Nurses don’t need breaks”

Nurses may be known for their strong work ethic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need breaks. Regular breaks throughout the day give nurses a chance to eat, rest and recharge so they can bring their best efforts to caring for patients.

This stereotype has even recently made national news. As Washington State legislators debated a bill that would require hospitals to provide RNs and LPNs with uninterrupted meal breaks and end the practice of forced overtime, one state senator made a much-criticized objection claiming nurses “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” Ultimately, the legislator apologized and the bill passed into law. With many nurses working 12-hour shifts, these regulations will help them improve patient safety by preventing burnout.

5. “Nurses need an IV of caffeine to function”

The stereotype of a tired nurse chugging coffee to get through a long overnight shift is portrayed often on TV. Though plenty of nurses enjoy a caffeine fix here and there, not all nurses are running on coffee all day.

“Some of us actually enjoy our jobs and don’t require gallons of caffeine to get through our day,” Woods says. “The joy of helping people is enough to keep me going!”

6. “Nurses have magical instincts that are never wrong”

You’ve probably heard stories of nurses who acted on a hunch and saved a patient’s life as a result. Though nurses do develop sharp instincts, these miraculous stories are the exception rather than the rule.

“Although we discern knowledge about a patient in a glance that we can't always put into words, this ‘spider sense’ can waste time and resources just because of that time back in ‘99 when it made us look like a hero,” Angelis says. Most often, nurses make educated deductions about a patient’s condition based on observation, training and years of experience.

7. “Female nurses are flirty”

It’s a common misconception that female nurses are all good-looking, single and would just love to date the people they interact with at work—those bronchitis patients looking like warmed-over death are irresistible, after all. When patients inevitably realize that RNs are complex people who don’t fit into this made-for-TV “flirty” box, other similarly harmful stereotypes can come into play.

“The stereotype is that the pretty or handsome nurses aren’t smart and the less-attractive ones must be geniuses,” Angelis says. We can all agree that you can’t judge others based on appearances, and that it’s high time for this nursing stereotype to hit the road.

8. “Nurses have to do whatever their patients ask”

It’s part of a nurse’s job to be compassionate and empathetic toward their patients. That means actively listening to patients’ concerns—but it doesn’t mean acting as a servant who caters to their every whim.

Nurses are professionals with a duty to act in the best interest of their patients. That could even include denying a patient’s requests if, for example, a patient with dietary restrictions asks for a forbidden food, or a patient wants more pain medication than would be safely allowed.

9. “Nurse life is just like what you see on TV”

You’ve probably seen at least one of these stereotypes appear on popular medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy. Everyone enjoys indulging in their favorite TV show, but it’s important to remember that these on-screen portrayals of nurse life are designed to create drama, not mimic real life.

The next time you catch an obvious nursing stereotype on TV, just enjoy the show while reminding yourself that nurses in the real world are capable professionals doing essential work.

Overcoming nursing stereotypes

Nurses spend every day overcoming nursing stereotypes like these and doing the best work possible for their patients. The next time you encounter a nursing stereotype, you can hold your head high and know that you’re a medical professional and a real-life superhero.

It’s clear that nurses do much more than people give them credit for. Learn more about their amazing work with our article “Who Is a Nurse? A Closer Look at These Superheroes in Scrubs.”

1U.S. Census Bureau, Male Nurses Becoming More Commonplace, Census Bureau Reports [accessed June 2019] https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2013/cb13-32.html

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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