Superheroes in the Hospital?

Since the beginning of the pandemic social media (fig. 1), poster campaigns by international advertising agencies (fig. 2) and, last but not least, art (fig. 3) have featured images of health workers as superheroes. These pictures are intended to pay tribute to the so-called ‘everyday heroes’ for their ‘fight’ against the invisible ‘enemy’ Covid-19. Already the contribution of the literary scholar Thomas Nehrlich reflected on the new hero criterion of the Ccorona period. The pictorial heroisation of the health professions is also to be questioned in the following interview with the nursing expert Prof. Dr. Sabine Hahn. 

Fig. 1: Poster currently also shared in social media (source:https://digitalgrafis.com/saleoffshirt/superhero-nurse-poster/, accessed 11 May 2020) 
Fig. 2: Poster series by Lidija Milovanovic (McCann Belgrade), which was created as part of a McCann Europe project (source: https://musebycl.io/health/mccann-belgrade-made-simply-perfect-tribute-doctors-superheroes-today, accessed 11 May 2020) 
Fig. 3: Donation of the British street artist Banksy to the University Hospital of Southampton (GB) with the title ‘Game Changer’ (source: https://musebycl.io/health/mccann-belgrade-made-simply-perfect-tribute-doctors-superheroes-today, accessed 11 May 2020) 

HCCD: Mrs. Hahn, the British street artist Banksy recently donated a painting to the University Hospital of Southampton (GB), in which a little boy plays with a doll dressed as a nurse who wears a protective mask and a superhero cape. What triggers the picture in you: Pride or skepticism? 

Sabine Hahn: The picture triggers mixed feelings in me, as the nurse is portrayed as a toy. A boy plays with us and it seems only a matter of time before we end up in the wastebasket together with Superman and Spiderman. It is also shameful that it is only in this pandemic that we realise how systemically relevant the work of the nurses is, as it is absolutely vital for survival. It is here faded out that we permanently work with physically and/or mentally ill people. We are the only professional group that is constantly in direct contact and on site to care for sick or disabled people and their families. Nursing professionals also perform very important work in the field of old-age and long-term care in order to maintain and promote the quality of life of very old people. In addition, thanks to care provided outside the hospital, sick or handicapped people can live in their own homes. Work in geriatric and long-term care is also very challenging, even if it is not valued by society as highly as acute or intensive care. Nursing care is not an ordinary job, and that makes me proud. Nursing professionals need courage and composure to face a threatening disease, to accept their own danger (unfortunately, due to a lack of protective materials, some nurses were fatally ill in the Covid-19 pandemic), to endure suffering, to face death and to take responsibility. Professional care requires not only specialist knowledge, but also empathy, sound reflection and humanity. This is an ideal combination for emotionally and cognitively intelligent people who want to perform meaningful and demanding work and who are also able to play a managing role. That’s why I am proud of my superhero status, because these are also characteristics of superheroes. I myself consider the work of a nurse to be one of the most beautiful and meaningful professions, because it encompasses the whole of being. 

Fig. 4: Recruitment campaign of the U.S. Red Cross during the First World War (Picture: Howard Chandler Christy, 1919 (source: https://docsouth.unc.edu/wwi/41898/100.html, accessed 11 May 2020) 

HCCD: History has shown that the depiction of heroism often has more to do with glorification or even propaganda than with the living environment of those affected (fig. 4). Is it different this time? 

Sabine Hahn: When it comes to the courage, serenity, expertise, empathy and reflectiveness and humanity that are necessary in the nursing profession, and when the term heroism has something to do with these qualities and skills, then it has something to do with the working world of the nursing professionals. In other words, care is definitely not for cowards. 

HCCD: Superheroes like Batman or Iron Man are also armed against their opponents thanks to their equipment. In contrast, hospitals in Italy, America and Switzerland lacked protective clothing for health personnel. So, is the superhero comparison misleading? 

Sabine Hahn: This is a very interesting question. Definitely from that point of view. You would never send out superheroes without equipment. You could even ask yourself if society and politics have a bad conscience about all the systemically relevant (mostly female) professions. Care also means little recognition, demanding working hours in a 24-hour rhythm, high physical strain, few personnel and financial resources etc. etc., and this is widely known. The bad conscience, one could also think, is calmed down again with the superhero status and lots of applause.  

HCCD: Does the current heroisation of health personnel really contribute to an improvement in their work situation? 

Sabine Hahn: Fortunately, the great catastrophe did not occur in Switzerland, the applause has ebbed, and voices are already being raised claiming that there is no shortage of healthcare professionals. Such people have no idea what is being done in the healthcare system and what the working conditions are like outside the attractive acute, intensive care or emergency areas. There is a shortage in all health care professions because there is a lack of next-generation staff, because many people drop out of the professions because of the high physical and mental strain, and because the care professions therefore tend to be over-aged. Many will retire in the coming years. In Switzerland in particular, we would probably not be able to maintain our healthcare and long-term care system without specialists trained abroad. The current heroisation is a hype that will probably not bear fruit in terms of improving working conditions. But what will lead to change will come from the health professionals themselves: They are the ones who have now recognised their systemic relevance and will continue to advocate improved working conditions. This could also happen soon at the expense of the health of the patients, because applause alone is not enough to guarantee the safety of the patients. This requires sufficient personnel resources and good working and training conditions. Heroisation thus also opens the eyes for the need for action – among the nursing staff themselves, and hopefully, through their more proactive public appearance, also in politics and society. 


Prof. Dr. Sabine Hahn is a nursing specialist in psychiatric care and nursing expert. After more than 15 years of working in direct care, she moved to education and research and has been head of Applied Research & Development in Nursing since 2006 and head of the Nursing Department since 2012 at the Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH, Switzerland. As a nursing scientist, her research interests include the shortage of skilled workers in the health care professions and the quality of nursing care in the healthcare sector. The findings of her work have been published in numerous publications and are incorporated into further training courses and concrete practice development. Sabine Hahn is a member of the board of directors of Spitex Bern and of the nursing home logisplus AG, in Köniz near Bern. In addition, she is co-founder of the HCCD working group. 


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Cite this blog post
Minou Afzali (2020, June 29). Superheroes in the Hospital? Learning from Corona. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg7q

Minou Afzali

Prof. Dr. des. Minou Afzali is the deputy head of the Institute of Design Research at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB) and a co-leader of the research group Health Care Communication Design HCCD.

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