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For years, the nursing profession has been subjected to what can only be described as a media smear campaign. TV shows depict nurses getting disrespect from doctors, being ridiculed if they just happen to be men, getting ignored by patients, and otherwise labouring tirelessly and thanklessly. But a recent Angus Reid poll is turning the smear on its ear. It turns out that Canadians respect nursing ahead of any other profession in Canada, with even doctors several ranks behind them in the top five.The results come as no surprise to Mario Canseco, VP of public affairs at Angus Reid. “It's actually been that way since the 1980s, despite this idea of the doctor being more respected,” says Canseco, summing up the results of previous polls that accorded nurses high respect from Canadians.Noting that recent polls conducted in the US and UK had similar results, Canseco chalks it up to the greater contact nurses have with patients, to what he calls a “more complex relationship” than might otherwise be established with a doctor. Canseco believes that the respect comes from more regular care patients get from the nurses and from nurses being a patient's direct liaison to their overall health care. The reality of the nurse-patient experience gives the lie to what we see on TV.

“They're ranked so highly despite health care differences in all these countries. The health care debates aren't affecting the view of the people providing it directly, that's instead a problem with bureaucrats and government,” says Canseco.

Robyn Alpert, a registered nurse working at Sick Kids hospital, agrees with Canseco. “There is a more personal experience with a nurse. A doctor comes in and out once a day, you get the same nurse more regularly, there's continuity,” says Alpert.

Alpert also believes that the image in the media of nurses is changing, pointing to recent coverage during health crises generating a greater appreciation. “When SARS happened, and at risk patients needed medical help, there was a lot of footage of nurses being on the front lines, putting themselves at risk.”

Which is not to say that Alpert has never encountered a lack of respect for what she does. On a trip back to her high school after graduation, her old science teacher asked her “Why would you go into nursing and just deal with bedpans?” It shocked Alpert just how misinformed someone could be about her profession.

Len Preskow is an advertising copywriter who feels the media image that breeds this misconception comes out of the very grounded work nurses engage in. “Our culture usually respects pop stars. The real hard jobs don't have the flashy image to capture media attention,” says Preskow.

Preskow himself has nothing but the highest respect for the nursing profession, feeling that the conditions they work through can be outright unfair at times. “I think they are so underpaid and undervalued for what they have to do, it's a crime. You have to shake your head and take your hat off to these people for what they have to deal with. I wonder if at the end of the day they know that they're appreciated for what they do,” he says.

For her part, Alpert has felt that appreciation, for the most part, throughout her career. “Sometimes it's not always spoken, sometimes you get it through a person's body language around you,” she says. On other occasions, that esteem has been expressed directly. “I'll be out socially with friends and say what my job is and they'll say things like 'Wow, that's gotta be tough, I really respect what you do.'”

Alpert believes that the image of the underpaid, undervalued nurse is changing as well, not just in perception, but in practice, pointing to bedside nurses who earn from $30-45 per hour.

Both Canseco and Alpert believe that a positive opinion of the nursing profession, shown in polls like Angus Reid's, can only help encourage the continued flow of people seeking out nursing as a career. “There has always been this idea of choosing professions that are respected. That might entice people,” says Canseco.

Preskow himself would be happy if his children chose a nursing career, though given the challenges in the field he would only want them to after “they make sure they have the temperament for it.”

His viewpoint has something in common with Alpert's, who feels that while respect is great and rewarding, anyone looking to nursing as a career should do so because they value the profession itself. “No one should go into nursing based on how people perceive the profession,” she says, adding she gets much more out of her job than just appreciation: “It is such a privilege to work at a bedside with families,” Alpert says.

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