Nurses have ranked as the most trusted profession in the U.S. for the past two decades.
They retained this top spot in Gallup’s latest poll about how U.S. adults view the ethics and honesty of 18 professions, with 79% of U.S. adults considering nurses to have “very high” or “high” ethical standards.
This is down 10 points from their all-time high in 2020, a slip parallel to physicians and pharmacists who have also seen a drop to 62% (down 15 points) and 58% (down 13 points), respectively.
These scores are the lowest seen for nurses and physicians since 2004 and 1999, respectively, but all three professions remain the most trusted on the list. Following health care workers, public confidence declines very quickly.
For example, clergy dropped to a surprising 34% very high / high confidence, placing them eighth out of the 18 professions in the survey. Gallup has polled clergy ethics and honesty since 1977, and they were frequently contenders for the top spots until the 2000s.
In 2009, those rating clergy honesty and ethics as very high or high dropped to 50%, and this total has been declining ever since. Now, ministers have their lowest score in history.
Unfortunately, ministers are not the only public servants to be losing the public’s trust. High school teachers have dropped to 53%. This is the lowest in polling history, reflecting a periodic decline since the profession joined the list in 2002.
Law enforcement officers have followed a different path. They joined the list in 1977 with 37% of respondents rating their ethics and honesty as very high or high. Since September 11, 2001, the profession has usually been above 50%, but typically hovers around that marker.
Other professions like judges (38% in 2022), bankers (26%) and journalists (23%) have consistently come in low in recent years.
There are differences along political party lines. Democrats rank nurses (86%), teachers (73%), physicians (73%) and pharmacists (63%) the highest, while Republicans rank nurses (76%), law enforcement officers (62%), pharmacists (58%) and physicians (54%) the highest.
The parties disagree sharply about journalists (41% and 9%, respectively), law enforcement officers (38% and 62%, respectively), labor union leaders (38% and 12%, respectively), and high school teachers (73% and 37%, respectively). Both parties place members of Congress and telemarketers at the bottom of the list.
We can see two disturbing trends when analyzing the data: the level of trust in all professions is declining, and the public is losing faith in our community leaders like clergy, teachers, judges and law enforcement.
The reduction in public trust could be due to a lack of confidence that Americans have in our government or each other. A 2019 Pew Research Center study revealed that 79% of Americans believe that “Americans have ‘far too little’ or ‘too little’ confidence in each other” and that 70% affirm that “Americans’ low trust in each other makes it harder to solve the country’s problems.”
Herein lies the problem. We have lost a sense of community, as we live our lives in individualistic silos. Too frequently, we don’t know our neighbors very well, and it is difficult to trust someone you know almost nothing about.
I see this lack of trust manifested every day in the hospital when a family member or patient puts more faith in a Google search than in the intensive care physician standing in front of them who has been practicing medicine for over 30 years.
But the problem is more than public trust; it is about problem solving. We are reluctant to listen to, or solve problems with, anyone or any group which does not look like, act like and think like us.
Add to this a hyper-dose of rugged individualism and some radical and unrealistic ideas about human freedom, and the declining trust in professions becomes less surprising, though no less tragic.
We need a dose of humility, acknowledging that we are not as smart as we think we are, and recognizing that many of our public servants have been studying urban planning, public health and education for decades.
We also need to acknowledge that we are interconnected, and the idea of radical freedom is a myth.
Philosophers going back to Aristotle recognized that human beings are social creatures. We do not function correctly outside of the community.
We were designed to live together and solve problems together. Unfortunately, our communities seem to be suffering from a collective paranoid personality disorder.
Herein lies one of the greatest social ills facing modern society: We no longer view ourselves as a member of a community. We forgot that if the community is successful, then we are more likely to be successful as individuals and if the community fails, then that failure impacts each of us too.
Therefore, we need to be more intentional about establishing relationships with our neighbors and our community leaders so that trust and confidence can develop.
This basic level of trust then becomes the key to building partnerships which will solve problems, enabling our communities to flourish.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.