“You’ll pretend to be a patient to get pregnant with someone else’s triplets”
In August 2022, The Spinoff reported that the New Zealand government planned to team up with the soap opera Shortland Street to address the nation’s nursing shortage. This move was easy to mock, but in fact even the silliest fictional media has the potential to affect how the public sees nursing—for better or worse.
August 2022 – This month The Spinoff reported on one of several New Zealand government measures to address the nation’s shortage of nurses: a partnership with the long-running hospital soap opera Shortland Street to promote the profession as a career. Mockery ensued. On August 1, the Spinoff’s Live Updates section had a couple short items by editor Stewart Sowman-Lund about the new measures. One item, “New initiatives announced to boost health workforce,” reported that health minister Andrew Little had announced the soap opera plan even as critics noted that the government had declined to “fast track” residency permissions for migrant nurses. The other item explained that the government was proposing other ways to address staffing shortages in the Covid-stressed health system, apparently by streamlining licensing rules. A few days later on August 4, the publication had TV writer Tara Ward’s “Ten things Shortland Street has taught us about nursing.” That was an amusing piece highlighting the seeming absurdity of using the show to promote the profession. The ten things included: “Your mum will also get a job at the hospital and then steal your boyfriend”; “You’ll spend most of your shift pashing (passionately kissing) colleagues / patients / acquaintances in the supply cupboard”; and “You’ll become a suspect and/or victim in a serial killer investigation.” On the other hand, Ward noted, a current plotline had showed the effects of a nursing shortage and of leaving an inexperienced nurse unsupervised. In any case, research has confirmed that even fictional dramas can affect public views about health care. So while this show may be silly, what it tells viewers about nursing still matters, and elements highlighting nursing skill could even be useful.
An undetermined but still significant number of things we learned about nursing
The August 1 Live Updates set the scene. The first item reported that the government had announced new measures to improve the “struggling” health care workforce, but those did not include the fast-tracking of residency for nurses coming from overseas. Health minister Andrew Little did introduce initiatives including a “one-stop-shop” for international recruitment, as well as a streamlined system and funding support for overseas nurses to obtain the registration needed to practice. Little said that would make the nation one of the easiest in the world for health workers to migrate to, and he pointed to the thousands who had arrived during Covid despite border closures. Additional measures would increase funding to encourage non-practicing nurses to return and to train nurse practitioners. Little was apparently asked to address the lack of a “fast tracked residency” measure, but he reportedly responded only that he did not think there would be any trouble recruiting nurses or others from overseas with the other measures in place.
The later item focused on Shortland Street. Little reportedly announced that the show would be “promoting nursing as part of a government initiative.” He said that he did not think the show’s agreement to promote nursing as a “fantastic career” would entail any cost to the government. The item itself pointed out that this announcement came while the government had decided not to introduce the “fast track” residency option. The opposing Act Party savaged the initiative as “absurd” and a “ridiculous plot twist.” It argued that the government was doing nothing to make the nation more attractive for migrant nurses, who still had to wait two years before becoming eligible for residency. One of these items might have had some discussion of why the government had not gone for the fast track. A fear that migrant nurses were too risky to receive that benefit so quickly? A perception that nurses are not important enough to justify it?
Ward’s “Ten things” piece focused on the absurdity, but it added helpful detail about Shortland Street’s depiction of nursing in its apparently 30 years on the air. Or to be more precise, the show’s depiction of all the things going on with the nurses, most of which are not really nursing.
The fact remains this is a hospital where the nurses (and all other staff, to be fair) are frequently very bad at their job. These people should [not] be trusted with anybody’s health and wellbeing. They’re having affairs in exam rooms, they’re selling sex toys in the staffroom, they’re killing their patients – often on purpose. They’re out of control. Ironically, one of Shortland Street’s current storylines is about the impact of a nursing shortage on the hospital, and the consequences of leaving an inexperienced nurse unsupervised.
Examples of the things viewers have “learned” from the show, in addition to those already noted, include “You’ll find out one of your workmates is actually your sibling,” “You’ll probably join a cult,” and “You’ll pretend to be a patient to get pregnant with someone else’s triplets.”
The current storyline about problems in nursing actually seems like the most promising thing in these pieces. It suggests that Shortland Street might be interested, in between the affairs and whatnot, in conveying something true about the profession. That element could have been developed in the “Ten things” piece, to the extent space permitted. In fact, the piece doesn’t give many specifics about the show’s portrayal of nurse-patient interactions. We can say that killing patients “often on purpose” would be unhelpful, for the obvious reason, and because nursing has an “angel of death” stereotype. Likewise with nurses spending most of the shift “pashing” (making out) in the supply cupboard, which could reinforce the naughty nurse stereotype; that would be somewhat less of an issue if non-nurse colleagues behaved the same way, in the same way that all the staff are often “very bad at their job.” In any case, we realize it’s “just a TV show.” But even the most far-fetched narratives still operate in a somewhat recognizable social framework, which can reinforce existing views about how health care works, as shown by research on various fictional media. The information above does not suggest that the show’s nurses have often been shown to be skilled, life-saving professionals. And this calls into question whether the show could or would be able to do that to any real extent. Still, if it did, there could be some value in a persuasive narrative about the difference a nurse can make for a patient, even if that narrative had fantastical elements, and even if that nurse was far from perfect, as Nurse Jackie showed.
We do thank The Spinoff for raising some issues about the effect of the media on nursing.
See the article by Stewart Sowman-Lund, “New initiatives announced to boost health workforce,” published by The Spinoff on August 1, 2022.
See the article by Tara Ward, “Ten things Shortland Street has taught us about nursing,” published by The Spinoff on August 4, 2022.