I used to be a matron but as a patient I was treated worse than an animal. That was one of the headlines in yesterday’s Sun. I do mean headlines, too. Jean Emblen’s account was not top story but it was right up there among the footballers’ wives. The editor of the Sun thought the readers would go for a story criticising nurses.
When did that happen? When I was a kid everyone was all soppy over nurses. It was considered quite shocking when a 1970s BBC soap opera called, tellingly, Angels depicted them as less than angelic.
We can’t simply attribute this loss in esteem to the NHS. For round about the first half century of the existence of the National Health Service, nurses continued to be loved by all (it is only fair to say there are plenty of people, including those with recent experience of the NHS, for whom that has not changed; a huge amount depends on the individual hospital). So what has caused it? Does it reflect reality – are nurses really not as good as they used to be – or is it just fashion, a last ripple from the wave that knocked politicians over in the 1960s and teachers in the 1970s?
One possible explanation is that nurses are no longer paid that badly. There is nothing like low pay for calling forth guilty affection. Once the pay improved people no longer felt they needed to make up the shortfall with love.
However my impression is that the downward trend on the nurse popularity graph best tracks the increasing moves for the nursing profession to become more… professional. It’s all “nurse practitioners” and degrees these days, and being more like doctors. No one ever had any trouble hating doctors, once the thermometer went down. People think that nurses these days think themselves too grand to change a bedpan.
Is this charge fair? Lucky me: I don’t know. You tell me. All I can say is that it would not surprise me if there was a tendency for both human contact and the dirty but necessary jobs to be de-emphasised in modern nursing, and maybe I can find a way to blame the NHS after all. It is what I would expect to see from an old command economy. Compared to most command economies, the NHS in its early years had a huge amount going for it: a sense of mission was in its collective blood. But as time as passed the blood has thinned, or done something else old and dry and sad that I lack the medical knowledge to build into my metaphor. (The blood of armies dries up in the same way, but then a war comes along and de-mummifies them. Or replaces them. ) An old and somewhat ossified organisation instinctively prefers its staff to have measurable, academic and relatively high status skills rather than unquantifiable, physical and and traditionally low-status ones. But no one was ever loved for academic skills.
In the US, I learn, there has been a similar move from plain old nurses to nurse practitioners, but if the American equivalent of the Sun has started on the anti-nurse stories then I had not heard about it. This might be because US healthcare is, for the moment, not provided by the taxpayer. At least, a lot of it is, but not so visibly. My impression is that the extravagant love for nurses in the past and the extravagant annoyance with them now are both British phenomena.