Q: Why aren't you more excited that public opinion polls often put nurses at the top of the list of "most trusted" and "most ethical" professions?
A: Of course, there's nothing inherently bad about being trusted or ethical! A desire to care faithfully for others (as opposed to desire for money, power, or status) has traditionally been a major factor in why people choose to become nurses. And the public has tended to recognize that such care givers generally have their patients' best interests at heart.
Our concern with the "most trusted" idea is that it doesn't convey what the public most needs to learn about nurses--that they are life-saving professionals--and may even reinforce the idea that nurses are unskilled angels and handholders. First, we must note that the Gallup polls commonly cited for the idea that nurses are the "most trusted" do not actually measure "trust." They measure "honesty and ethics." That is not the same as trust, a broader term that can encompass respect for knowledge and skill, although we cannot assume respondents would interpret it that way when the subject is nursing. But in any case, the Gallup poll is clearly not measuring respect for knowledge or skill.
On the other hand, Gallup's honesty and ethics poll results do fit perfectly with the prevailing vision of nurses as devoted, angelic handmaidens. Of course, it's possible to fully understand how highly skilled nurses are and still value their "honest and ethics." But given that public understanding of the nursing profession appears to remain very poor, we fear that the poll results are essentially an expression of a vague, sentimental affection for nurses flowing from the above stereotypes. It seems to us that people trust nurses to hold their wallets while they're in surgery, but not to save their lives.
It's also worth noting that although Gallup has been conducting the Honesty and Ethics Poll about well-known professions since 1976, it did not even include nursing until 1999. The profession immediately took the top spot and has held it every year since, except for 2001, when firefighters won in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies. We might complain that nursing had been slighted prior to 1999 for not even being included in a poll that it has dominated ever since--an omission that probably reflected the profession's marginal status in a public discourse dominated by physicians, lawyers, and the rest--if we did not suspect that nursing is actually worse off being included and winning the poll.
In any case, it seems clear that polling can measure many things, and much depends on the wording of questions and the context in which they are asked. It would be a mistake to imagine that polling measuring the "honesty and ethics" of nurses (or even how much the public "trusts" them) implied genuine respect for professional skill. In this sense, putting too much stock in these poll results may actually be a dangerous illusion.
See the 2013 Gallup poll on honesty and ethics. Also see the "Top-Rated Professions, Gallup Honesty and Ethics Poll, 1976-2010.
last updated: December 17, 2013