It doesn’t take an MD to recognize that the United States has been engaged in rancorous debate over its healthcare system for the last several years. Disputes over the benefits and deficiencies of the Affordable Care Act, the law’s potential repeal, rising drug prices, and other flashpoints have dominated the country’s political landscape. Given this highly charged environment, one might expect doctors and nurses to bear at least some of the brunt of Americans’ apparent frustration with their healthcare system.
Recent polling, however, shows that this is definitively not the case. An annual Gallup poll gauging Americans’ estimation of the honesty and ethical standards of professionals in various fields showed in December what it has shown for the past 15 years in a row: nurses are the most trusted profession in America by a pretty wide margin. Overall, 84% of those polled considered nurses’ ethical standards to be either high or very high, which is 17% higher than the next highest high/very high rating. What’s more, four of the five most trusted professionals work in the healthcare field (pharmacists, doctors, and dentists round out the top five along with engineers).
Granted, registering gigantic trust surpluses when measured against the likes of advertisers, car salespeople, or members of Congress (*shudders*) isn’t exactly a difficult feat – every nurse in America could suddenly morph into Nurse Ratched tomorrow and the public would probably still prefer dealing with them over the cheesy salesman down at the used car lot. But these results represent a long-term trend in Gallup’s polling showing that Americans put an uncommon amount of stock in healthcare providers’ integrity, even as they profess rising dissatisfaction with other aspects of the healthcare system, such as costs.
In fact, Americans have rated nursing as the most trusted profession in America every year but one since Gallup began running this particular poll in 1999. Since that year, nurses have received a high/very high polling percentage of at least 84% six other times besides 2016 and have never registered a low/very low percentage above a measly 3%. The high/very high percentage has also never dipped below 73%, and not below 80% since way back in 2004, a distant year now shrouded in the mists of time when patients’ popular perceptions of nurses were still being colored by the likes of Scrubs and ER, two shows you probably haven’t thought about since the George W. Bush administration. By contrast, other professionals, such as journalists and college professors, have seen their trustworthiness ratings erode over the same time period. In the 2016 poll, respondents rated only five other professions’ ethical standards as high or very high at above a 50% clip.
What does this say about nurses and other healthcare professionals and their relationships with their patients? Well, we know that above all, patients want and expect their healthcare providers to be confident. Demonstrating that you know what you’re doing—a reasonable expectation when you hold people’s lives in your hands—goes a long way toward earning your patients’ trust. But this poll goes beyond evaluating mere professional competence. Americans believe nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers are not just going to provide quality care, but be honest and do the right thing while providing that care. This may seem like a lofty expectation to live up to as a healthcare professional. But caring for patients who trust you rather than view you with skepticism also makes your job a whole lot less complicated.