"Nurse" vs. "Doctor"
I’ve been tinkering with a new research tool from Google labs – Ngram Viewer™ – which unravels cultural references inside the 15 million books scanned by the search engine giant. Looking at the proportion of published content that mentions the word “nurse” or “doctor” – over the period 1800 to 2008 – I found the Google application’s raw graphing data reveal some fascinating results. In a nutshell, the English language corpus has historically held doctors in higher esteem than nurses; around 1980, cultural references to nurses and to doctors nearly converged. And after 2000, doctors rose again in importance relative to nurses, and at a rapid clip. What explains the trend?
Yes, I know, there are flaws with my methodology. Mere reference to the word “doctor” may not signal that these authors – including fiction and non-fiction authors – held physicians in high regard. On the other hand, I think that the content in published books (prior to the current self-publishing industry’s meteoric rise) is a fair proxy on what the establishment considers valuable. Book publishers, before the industry’s current financial implosion, have long been gatekeepers of the knowledge that defines our world.
Further, the nurse vs. doctor trend makes intuitive sense. With the public emergence of AIDS in the 1980s and the then-increasing attention given to the nursing shortage, especially in the United States, nurses assumed greater importance in the public eye, and were recognized for their unique value in terms of patient care. Later, in 1999, when Médicins sans Frontières won the Nobel Peace Prize, doctors once again donned the professional crown of prestige.
At the beginning of the current century, with the increasing political focus in industrialized countries on the financial sustainability of healthcare, doctors have assumed pre-eminent status as opinion leaders in health reform debates.
But in 2011, similarly to trends in other professions, the roles of “nurse” and “doctor” are changing at a pace never seen before. Both professions are embracing new responsibilities – notably, management and IT. The power of Google’s Ngram Viewer – an extraordinary lens into what society has historically valued – will perhaps lose heft as a tool to assess the ‘market value’ of the nursing versus medical professions. Yet Google’s Ngram Viewer also tells me that public interest in “interprofessional” collaboration has been on a general incline since 1990. Care and cure can no longer be easily separated – cure can only come about in the context of effective care. This is good news. For reflected in Google’s Ngram Viewer is ourselves: we are what we publish.
About the Author(s)Longwoods essayist Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College. His next book is XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.
Neil Seeman wrote:
Posted 2011/05/01 at 03:07 PM EDT
Interestingly, using the corpus from "American English" only, I found that nurses overtook doctors in the 80s, boosting the observation that the attention given to the nursing shortage in the US may have changed public sentiment (for a decade, anyway). http://bit.ly/fJVSV6
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