The U.S. recognizes National Nurses Week each year from May 6-12.
At no time in our recent history have we been reminded how important this profession is like we have over the last year.
Nurses are more than essential; they are one of the most respected professions.
Gallup recently published the results of its annual Honesty and Ethics Poll, which asks respondents to rate the honesty and ethical standards of different professions.
For the 17th year in a row, nurses were ranked as the most trustworthy and ethical profession, with 89% of respondents saying that nurses had high or very high ethical standards.
The poll has been conducted since 1976 and looks at how the public views the moral standards of 12 to 15 different professions. Other high-scoring professions were physicians (77%), K-12 schoolteachers (75%) and pharmacists (71%).
While it is tempting to attribute these high scores to the pandemic, these professions have been at the top of the list for years.
The public simply perceives people in these professions as having a higher moral standard than lawyers (21%), car salespeople (8%) or members of Congress (8%).
Why are nurses perceived as the most trusted and ethical professions of all time?
The simple answer is that nurses are amazing. They are caring, compassionate and hard working. They are angels in comfortable shoes.
They give us our medication. They are there for bowel movements and to help clean up vomit.
They might have to spring into action and provide chest compressions or even cardiogenic shock at a moment’s notice.
They are an endless supply of medical knowledge, able to explain complex medical procedures better than the average physician.
Plus, patients hang on their every word. We trust these men and women with our lives.
While all of this is true, it still does not explain fully why they have been the most trusted profession for almost two decades.
I believe the answer is that health care workers tell us the truth, even if we do not want to hear it. Then, they help us process our grief, anger and sometimes spitefulness.
Nurses tell us to lose weight, stop smoking, eat more salmon, get eight hours of sleep, drink eight glass of water, establish an exercise routine and take our medication.
We do not want to be told that our lifestyles are making us sick or killing us. By nature, we avoid taking responsibility for our behavior.
Nurses force us to face issues that scare us and do not sugar coat it. They tell us things that are painful, but necessary, to hear.
After 15 years in health care, it is still hard for me to tell a 75-year-old man that his wife of 56 years just died or to tell a woman that she just lost her baby.
This stuff hurts both the patient and the messenger. You know they will be flooded with pain and grief when you give them the bad news.
Those same emotions fill the room, affecting everyone present. After you share bad news, you feel part of your patient’s anger, grief and despair.
Yet, you tell them the bitter truth anyway, regardless of how it makes you feel. Then, you hold their hand while they cry.
That is what nurses do.
It would be so easy just to tell people what they want to hear, giving them a false sense of hope and avoiding harsh emotions simply by refusing to have difficult discussions.
The problem for health care providers is that we cannot help if we, and the patient, are not honest – and sometimes we have to be brutally honest.
Nurses will snatch a Twix bar out of a non-compliant diabetic’s hand, only to be cussed at like a dog. They will be firm and sometimes harsh with a substance abuse disorder patient.
It’s not out of cruelty. It’s compassion. It’s out of a desire to care and comfort. It is not loving if your words only enable.
In short, health care workers, in general, and nurses, specifically, are the most trusted profession because they are willing to proclaim truth and suffer the consequences for the sole purpose of saving lives and restoring health.
It may not be the ICU or the operating room that makes the profession so hard. It might not be the bloody wounds or the horrid smells that make it so difficult. It might not be the 12-hour shifts or being on call that makes it so exhausting.
Rather, it is the emotional burden of being brutally honest and pushing patients to face the reality of their medical condition.
This earns both our respect and trust, even if we might not like what they have to say in the moment.
Trust is earned in the process, and nurses have historically gone above and beyond in selfless service to their patients.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.