The Changing Image of Australian Nursing

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The Changing Image of Australian Nursing

Jacqueline Bloomfield
RN, CM, Dip App.Sci (Nur), BN, Grad Cert Onc Nur, Grad Dip Midwifery, MN, MCN (NSW).

The way in which the public perceives nursing significantly influences nurse�s role performance, job satisfaction and occupational expectations. The public image of Australian nursing has been subject to a plethora of influencing factors since health-care services were first established in this country over two centuries ago, Since its colonial origins, when considered an occupation suitable only for the socially outcast, nursing has evolved through decades of changes and reform. From a position of significant oppression and medical subservience, generations of Australian nurses have fought for public recognition in terms of identity, respect and role acknowledgement. The paper briefly explores the public image of Australian nursing from a historical perspective and discuss some of the factors that have influenced the way in which the public perceives the roles and responsibilities of the nurse.


There is little doubt that nursing in Australia has undergone significant changes since its early colonial origins over two years ago when caring for the sick was widely considered to be a task suitable only of those of criminal and social disrepute (Schultz, 1991) Since these early beginnings, Australian nursing has progressed gradually through what can be considered a social, educational, technological, political and professional revolution. Modern nursing represents this progression, and as a result, the role of the contemporary nurse has expanded considerably from what was once traditionally the fulfillment of predominantly domestic duties performed at the instruction of the doctor.

While it is relatively simple to evaluate the progression of Australian nursing in terms of emerging roles and responsibilities, it is not so easy to define if and how the public image of nursing has changed over time. �Image� as defined in the Oxford Large Print dictionary (Hawkings, 1990, p.402) is a "general impression of a person, firm or product as perceived by the public". It is acknowledged that reshaping an existing image is both a long and arduous process (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1987) and that several factors contribute to shaping an image.

Recent changes in nursing practice and the ways in which nurses are educated may have contributed to nurses gaining increased autonomy, accountability and expanded role responsibilities, but it could be argued that these changes have contributed very little to upgrading the traditionally subservient and domestically oriented public image of nursing (Dahl, 1992). Contemporary nursing is a unique occupation encompassing not only a highly specialised body of knowledge, but also the utilisation of complex technology, acquired skills and immeasurable actions (Kalisch & Kalisch, 1987). These aspects of nursing, however, are frequently overlooked or misunderstood by a large proportion of the general public and it can be said that inaccurate and often negative nursing stereotypes have significantly contributed to distorted public images of nurses. It is pertinent to question whether the public has moved past the traditional image of nursing, which portrays nurses as passive, unintelligent, highly dependent medical handmaidens (Kaler, Levy & Schall, 1989). It is the aim of this paper to discuss this very relevant issue.

The Early Settlement

When examining the origins of nursing in Australia and its early public image, it is useful to consider the early settlement of Sydney when the majority of health-care givers came from convict backgrounds. As the needs of the hospitals were widely considered to be a very low priority in the overall scheme of colonial development, few provisions were made by the governing authorities to allocate resources for the sick and infirm (Cushing, 1997). As a result, convicts who were considered...
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