Nurses have been named the most honest and ethical profession for the 16th straight year. A close second was military officers. Are military nurses especially trusted for their honesty and ethical standards? My guess is they are because they exemplify the best of both nursing and service to the country. Near the bottom of the list are members of Congress and at their lowest level since the poll began is clergy.

I think other professions could learn a lot from nursing about what it means to be honest and ethical. For most of us honest and ethical behavior is easy. It is something we teach and build into both education and practice, but mostly it is an expectation of all nurses. If we make a mistake, such as a drug error, we do not punish the mistake, but instead, we make being honest about the mistake an expectation. We then search for the cause of the mistake and we work to correct it. Dishonest is never acceptable. We embrace our humanity and our failings and when we realize a colleague erred we help them to do better in the future and we make every effort to try and help anyone that may have suffered as a result.

Nursing teaches us that everyone will make mistakes, but we are not defined by those mistakes. Our patients will eat too much and harm their health. They will drink too much, or exercise too soon after an injury, or do something dangerous, or any number of things humans do that harm their health or the health of a family member. Which among us doesn’t have a story we tell and laugh about that relates some serious failure in judgment? It isn’t our job to judge, but to help in recovery, educate on how to be healthier or safer, and treat each individual with evidence-based and compassionate care.

What could Congress and clergy learn from us? Start with self-determination. People have a right to determine their own health, faith, and path. When a patient, a parishioner, or a citizen tells you what they want it is our job to respect their choice. If they don’t want a procedure even though it might help them to be healthier we must respect their decision. Congress could learn that the truth is always best even when it isn’t what people want to hear. Don’t spin it. We don’t tell patients that cancer will make them healthier, wealthier, or happier. We don’t give a treatment we know will not make them better, but will likely make them worse and may in fact seriously harm not only them but their family and friends. We don’t refuse to provide care because someone with more money or more power doesn’t want us to do it.

Likewise, if we harm someone we don’t deny it. We make every effort to correct any harm we caused even if it means that we will get sued or have a negative mark on our records. If we are about to do something that will cause discomfort we talk the patient through it and we try to offer as much support as possible. We never take joy in any pain a treatment causes others and we would never tolerate a nurse that intentionally makes a treatment more painful. I’ve never known a nurse that does not consider patient advocacy more important than protecting a peer that made an error. And, we ensure in every state there is a system for anyone to file a complaint or voice a concern and we ensure that it will be taken seriously and the action taken as a result will be public.

My suggestions to Congress and clergy is to follow these easy rules:

  • Self-determination is more important than your personal wishes.
  • Tell the truth. People know when you are lying and unfortunately, once you are dishonest most people lose all faith in you and what you represent.
  • All people deserve equal respect and dignity. In case your don’t remember what his means here are some definitions.
    • Definition of equal. 1 a (1): of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another. (2): identical in mathematical value or logical denotation: equivalent. b: like in quality, nature, or status. c: like for each member of a group, class, or society.
    • Definition of dignity 1. the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.
  • Admit your mistakes and work to rectify them.
  • Transparent and translucent are not the same thing.

It is not our job to force our ethics on others, but to show them our honesty and ethics through our behavior.