Americans say nurses have the highest honesty and ethical standards, according to the most recent Gallop poll. For us, this is not news. Nurses have topped this list each year since we were first included with the exception of 2011 when firefighters were included in response to their heroic effort during the 9/11 attacks. But this is not information that we should take for granted. The public is fickle and a few isolated incidents by a few bad apples spread by social media can ruin the public perception of an entire profession quite easily.
Physicians have not ranked as high as nurses, but their rankings have been higher than other non-healthcare professionals in business, law and politics. The high rating for physicians last year is significant after the Ebola outbreak which infected a number of physicians both in the U.S. and in West Africa.
But this year, there have been a few very public situations that may impact the upcoming survey. For example, a Virginia man under sedation for a colonoscopy, recorded an unflattering and insulting conversation between his anesthesiologist and his gastroenterologist. Even though his medical care was deemed to be fine, he sued and won a sizable judgment for defamation, medical malpractice and punitive damages. Currently in the news, there have been secretly recorded video tapes released that show physicians for Planned Parenthood discussing in very calloused and uncaring terms the retrieval of fetal tissue and organs for research, certainly an emotionally charged topic. And then, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an essay written by doctors that detail some very lustful, even possibly criminal behavior by gynecologists in an effort to shine sunlight on the issue. We can privately scorn these individuals as being unrepresentative of their professional colleagues. Or we can look at the similarities and try to deem a message for ourselves.
Let's start by acknowledging that lighthearted joking and prankster behavior can be a vehicle to ease the tension of a stressful day or an emotionally charged clinical situation. Let's also acknowledge that the public might not understand or appreciate the type of language or behavior that often takes place at the nurse' station or in the locker room, especially when taken out of context. Yes, let's admit that if asked, we might also have unflattering and unprofessional stories we could anonymously tell an editor or journalist about the behavior of nursing colleagues. But let us also accept that a high ranking for honesty and ethical standards comes with responsibility. We cannot take this honor for granted. Everyone today has a cell phone with a camera and a recording device. Digital media makes it easy for a small, seemingly minor human error or lapse in judgment to go viral. Remember that the whole world is watching.