As 2020 comes to a close, nurses have done it again: they find themselves at the top of the Gallup Poll for the 19th consecutive year. With 89% of respondents rating them high or very high for honesty and ethical standards — a 4% gain from one year ago — nurses stand tall as the most trusted professionals in the country.
Physicians gained a well-deserved 12% during this pandemic year, landing in second place with a score of 77%. With the infected public placing their lives and health in the hands of both groups since COVID-19 emerged earlier this year, who else would come to mind for securing first and second place?
Not unsurprisingly, Members of Congress ranked at 8% — the same lowly score as those who sell used cars — with Congressional leaders sliding from 12% one year ago. Based on seven months of inaction by that legislative body as millions of Americans have suffered the consequences of the worst pandemic in living memory, 8% might seem generous to some despite the recent $900 billion aid package just signed into law by a recalcitrant and egomaniacal president who absented himself from the negotiation process until well past the 11th hour.
At the Epicenter
Nurses — like physicians, first responders, respiratory therapists, and many other healthcare professionals — have been at the epicenter of the virus since day one. That said, we must also not overlook those who keep healthcare facilities clean, deliver meals, maintain hospital HVAC systems, provide security, and perform other tasks central to the delivery of patient care and the smooth running of our facilities. The individuals who clean hospital rooms put their lives at risk every day to keep patients and families safe, and that is no small thing given that such work is largely low-paid and invisible.
Throughout the pandemic, we've heard the banging of pots and pans at 7 pm in honor of nurses (a thoughtful gesture even though few if any nurses actually get out of work on time). We've also seen yard signs thanking first responders and signs outside of hospitals declaring, "Heroes work here!" Such signs are all well and good, but when nurses are forced to reuse N95 masks well beyond efficacy or safety, those sentiments posted on the hospital lawn ring hollow. Hazard pay would be infinitely more appreciated than a nice sign and some donuts in the break room.
A Post-Pandemic Vision
In my world, I see the federal government paying tribute to these selfless workers by forgiving 100% of their students loans.
I see public health being elevated to its rightful status of crucial and highly-recognized service to the country and a viable, well-paid career for those who pursue it. No longer will public health be something relegated to invisibility by dint of it being less sexy than the ED or the ICU.
I also see a reckoning related to racial disparities in healthcare, and the realization that public health must no longer be politicized to our collective detriment.
I also envision far more support for the educational systems that populate the funnel of talent for our healthcare system. If we truly need 1 million nurses by the year 2022 to fulfill our growing need but nursing schools turn away tens of thousands of candidates per year due to a dire lack of faculty, something clearly must change. If we don't value our nursing educators enough for them to be paid sufficiently to prevent them from being lured to higher-paying clinical jobs, we need the government and the private sector to boost those salaries in order to assure that our schools are robustly staffed with top-notch instructors.
I also share a vision of nurses' and others staff members' secondary trauma from the pandemic being holistically addressed. In order to stem the tide of attrition from the nursing profession due to burnout, we simply cannot afford to ignore the suffering within the profession, nor the egregiously high rate of suicide among physicians and the less robustly documented suicide rate among nurses.
A retiring nurse can't simply be replaced by a new grad. New grads need mentoring and training so that they can become the clinicians they're destined to be — and that we desperately need. I believe that every hospital in the country should become a vigorous training ground where every hire without previous experience is ushered through a new grad residency funded by as many varied sources as necessary. After all, it's in every citizen's best interest that nurses receive the training to operate at the top of their capabilities. And if the general public actually knew the toll that bullying takes on nurses and the massive attrition from the workforce this leads to, they would be up in arms at how many good nurses we lose each year.
Let's Not Turn Our Backs
This pandemic has thrown a great deal into stark relief, and if we are to learn from our mistakes and grow from this experience, we can't just return to business as usual. Yes, the coronavirus will eventually be wrestled into submission and we'll have the pandemic in our rearview mirror, but there will be many more bullets to dodge in the years to come.
The Gallup Poll reveals what we as a nation think of our healthcare providers. We place high value on doctors and nurses, and there are plenty of their colleagues who are just as crucial and also highly admired (pharmacists were actually fourth on the list with a 71% favorability rating).
So if we truly value these stalwart citizens who serve society so selflessly day after day, there's much more that can be done to repay them for their service, strengthen their educational opportunities, improve their workplace experience, and shore up the very system upon which we all rely for our well-being and our very lives when the going gets tough.
Our courageous healthcare workforce didn't turn their backs on us in our hour of need, so let's not turn our backs on them when the hard work is done.
(Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn on December 29, 2020 under a different title.)