tv nurses

At the Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday, Sept. 23, actress Edie Falco was once again up for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her portrayal of a TV nurse, prescription pill-popping “Nurse Jackie.” While some nurses praise the fictional RN’s clinical prowess, others, including the American Nurses Association and the NYS Nurses Association, have protested the character’s violations of the nursing Code of Ethics.

Without a doubt, it’s difficult to find a realistic nursing role model on the big or small screen. From finding a cure for a rare disease within the hour, to giving a patient an injection in an inappropriate site (the forearm!?), to shocking a patient who has flatlined, medical TV programs rarely seem to get it right.

We asked our Facebook community to set the record straight and share the most shocking inconsistencies between what they see on television and the way they practice in real life settings. Here are their top four:

Pay No Mind to Privacy 

If you’ve ever walked into a doctor’s office, you’ve likely signed a form related to the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which protects a patient’s health information. Despite this federal law, TV nurses seem to be easily bought and sold when it comes to their patient’s privacy.

“HIPAA violations are the worst…the nurse always does the cute doctor or estranged relative a ‘favor’ with patient information.” – Melissa G. 

Stealing Time for Romance 

In the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” romantic entanglements abound in the halls of the fictional Seattle Grace Hospital – including those of the doctors dubbed “McDreamy” and “McSteamy.” While this might give the impression that romance blooming in the ER is common, having time for a workplace relationship when you’re a healthcare provider is next to impossible, say our nurses.

“I must be doing something wrong because I barely have time to go to the bathroom since I’m busy doing paperwork, calling doctors, acting as a social worker or case manager, and oh yeah, taking care of patients!”— Adriane W.

Operate Outside the Nursing Scope of Practice 

The TV series “House” has been cited among medical programs that show doctors doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to patient care, while largely ignoring the important role that nurses play. On the flipside, many TV nurses practice outside of their scope, our community noted.

“Doctors doing nurse work (House), nurses doing doctor work (HawthoRNe).”— Phyllis W.

“Physicians performing all the work that nurses actually do. Start IVs, transport patients, draw labs……” – Craig C.

No Gloves, No Mask, No Problem? 

TV nurses who practice without gloves or masks are commonplace on television hospital sets. Not to mention that nurses on the small screen seem to throw hand hygiene guidelines to the wind…

“Not washing their hands… ewww.” – Lisa G.


Nurses, what’s your pet peeve when it comes to medical dramas? Share with us the biggest mistakes you see TV nurses making below!

  1. Improper blood draws are common place. They access the blood vessel with the needle in a vertical position and they pull the needle out before removing the tourniquet.

  2. I love it when you can obviously tell the ETT is not even in the mouth! I get that it is a show but at least have it look like its in the mouth!!

  3. If I see one more patient on a non-rebreather mask that is deflated I just might scream. TV shows are killing patients with CO2 poisoning daily. Can we get some oxygen please!!!

  4. The lack of gloves thing just drives me NUTS! Seriously a misrepresentation of safe standard precautions in patient care. I also think it does the nursing profession a terrible disservice when we are shown practicing out of our scope. A made for TV movie recently appeared on ABC in which Mandy Moore played as hospice nurse. She took so many liberties that nurses are just not entitled to and it just flew all over me.
    There are plenty of mistakes that nurses make in real life, many of them comical. Why wouldn’t they put things like this on tv: “Oops” moments nurses hate to admit!?

  5. How about their beautiful well kept hair that flows everywhere never pulled back and their make up so flawless through the whole shift after codes and all yeah so not true!!!

  6. By far my biggest pet peeve is how nurses are portrayed as idiotic, unprofessional, man-chasing, pill popping, nurse bashing, borderline personalities the media feels ‘their’ nurses represent. Shows like ER that on the FIRST episode had Julianna Margolis overdosing due to the stress of her job and an ill-conceived romance. I refuse to watch Nurse Jackie and I applaud the nursing organizations for pointing out the short-comings of this character. Sadly, the “reality shows” are no better. Shows like Real Stories of the ER and Bizarre ER also focus on the physicians contribution to patient care. Nurses are more likely akin to set dressings rather than important members of the team. By far the worst show ever was ABC’s Nightingale’s that opened each episode with the nurses changing for work in the locker room. Of course all the nurses had great figures and wore TEDDIES under their scrubs. Eventually, ABC cancelled the show due in large part to the writing of thousands of letters from nurses to Aaron Spelling. For my money there has only been one TV nurse who came close to portraying nurses as professionals. Loretta Swit, portrayed “Hotlips Houlihan” on MASH. While her nickname was sexual, she did stand up for herself and her nurses. She also garnered respect from the surgeons of the 4077th by routinely catching errors and reporting changes in the patients condition. She also had a human side, and Ms. Swit poignantly captured the nurse’s sole will providing care to the injured. While this issue is a philosophical discussion among nurses, it really should be brought to the forefront in educating the public about how nursing really contributes to the care and recovery of millions of lives worldwide.

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