In the Media: Print Media Give Doctors More Ink than Nurses

    • April 28, 2010

On television, bias in favor of doctors—and against nurses—is clear to the naked eye: Doctors play the leads in most medical dramas, while nurses comprise the supporting cast.

But there appears to be a bias against nurses in print media as well, according to a recent informal survey conducted by this publication.

In stories that were published in U.S. newspapers and wire services over the last year about the debate over health care reform, doctors got almost all the ink while nurses—the nation’s largest group of health care professionals—were barely covered.

Doctors and physicians, for example, were mentioned about four times as often as nurses were in stories about health care reform that were published last month, when the historic health care overhaul was signed into law.

Rebecca M. Patton, M.S.N., R.N., C.N.O.R., president of the American Nurses Association, attributes the disparity in part to the fact that physicians—rather than nurses—run most of the nation’s health care organizations. But that, she says, is changing: “Now we know that the captain of the ship no longer has to be a physician,” she said.

At the same time, Patton is encouraging nurses to be more proactive spokespeople for the profession to counter media bias in favor of physicians. “Nurses love being at the bedside and taking care of patients, and in the past would have been content to allow others to manage health care,” she said. “Now we know our voice needs to be heard in that aspect of managing health care and what health policy needs to be.”

Health Reform Stories Refer to “Doctors” More Often than “Nurses”

In a search of the LexisNexis database for stories that ran during the month of March that included the phrase “health care reform,” the terms “doctors” or “physicians” appeared in 3,855 newspaper and wire service stories, whereas the words “nurses” or “nursing” appeared in just 956 stories. There were 629 stories that included both sets of words. (The search did not include stories published by the Wall Street Journal.)

A similar pattern emerged in a review of print media coverage during other important periods during the health reform debate.

In March of last year, when President Obama held a much-covered summit on health care, doctors were again far more likely to get a newspaper mention than nurses. During that period, the terms “doctors” or “physicians” appeared in 1,224 stories about health reform, while the words “nurses” or “nursing” appeared in only 369 stories. There were 246 stories about reform that referred to both types of providers during March of 2009.

And in November of that year, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of the health reform bill, doctors and physicians were about five times as likely to get coverage. During that month, the terms “doctors” or “physicians” appeared in 3,647 stories, whereas the words “nurses” or “nursing” appeared in 765 stories; there were 518 stories that mentioned both professions.

The bias played out in newspapers from all corners of the country. Doctors were disproportionately covered in papers including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and the Denver Post. In searches of these papers in March 2009, November 2009 and March 2010, there was not a single month where the words “nurses” or “nursing” appeared more than “doctors” or “physicians.”

Reversing this trend, Patton said, requires education. “We need to encourage nurses not only to be seen but also to be heard.”

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