What We Can All Learn from Nurses - Marvin Krislov
Nurses are the most trusted professionals in America.
That’s the headline of a Gallup poll released last month that asked Americans to rate members of 20-odd professions for their honesty and integrity. An impressive 85% of respondents graded the honesty and ethical standards of nurses as very high or high, a score nearly 20 percentage points higher than the runners-up, engineers. It’s also at least 20 points higher than other medical professionals ranked, including doctors, pharmacists, and dentists. Most impressive, according to the Gallup report, is that this is the 18th consecutive year in which nurses have been ranked as the most honest and trustworthy professionals in the country.
As the president of Pace University, where we pride ourselves on preparing our students to be effective and enlightened professionals, I wanted to know why it is that nurses do so well — and whether there’s a lesson in these results that we can use to help other students be seen as more honest and ethical in their careers.
(For whatever it’s worth, only 49% of respondents ranked college teachers well, although at least that’s better than the 22% who said that lawyers, my former profession, are honest and ethical.)
I turned to Harriet Feldman, PhD, RN, FAAN, a registered nurse and the dean of our College of Health Professions. Feldman has been the dean of our nursing school for nearly 30 years. She’s also a highly successful and effective leader and, were Gallup to poll me, someone I’d rank exceedingly well on honesty and ethics.
She thinks the secret is that nurses are compassionate, they’re consistent, and they’re always available when they’re needed.
When you’re in a hospital, Feldman said, “you’re putting your life in the hands of people who are there 24/7, who care about you, who have a commitment to you, who are honest with you.” Nurses are trusted more than doctors, she added, because nurses are seen as standing alongside their patients and advocating for them. “A nurse will advocate for the patient to the physician,” she said, “or help the patient talk to the physician in a certain way to address whatever the issue is.”
To some degree, that’s the inherent nature of a nurse’s role. As Feldman noted, it’s a doctor who gets blamed when things go wrong, because doctors are expected to find cures. Nurses, on the other hand, are expected to make people as comfortable as possible, to be there when needed, and to get the job done. The structure of a hospital is set up to help nurses succeed at those responsibilities, and so they are able to be reliable and trustworthy.
In 2000, Feldman co-authored a book titled Nurses in the Political Arena, for which she interviewed dozens of nurses who had moved into political life. She found that the nurses she interviewed told her that their nursing training gave them the skills they needed in public life: empathy, advocacy, critical thinking, and decision-making.
So should empathy, reliability, and advocacy be placed at the center of other professionals’ training?
Neil Braun, dean of our Lubin School of Business and an accomplished media executive, made the point that incentives in business are often very different than incentives for providing care. For a nurse, as Feldman said, success is making a patient as comfortable as possible during a difficult time. For a businessperson, success is making money. What a nurse does is designed to increase wellbeing in others; for someone in business, that’s not necessarily true.
But he does see a few commonalities. The most obvious is trust, which he notes is essential in business. But perhaps the less obvious one is empathy. “You’re actually a better negotiator when you understand your opposition,” he pointed out. In other words, taking a cue from nurses and building your empathy skills can actually help you in your business goal of making money.
“So much of business is based on relationships and access,” Braun said. “Taking cues from nurses about being empathetic to the other persons’ issues, about being consistent and accountable, about being accessible and highly responsive—these are all lessons we can and should take from nurses.” The most successful people, he noted, already do this, even if they’ve never articulated it quite this way.
There are ways we’re already teaching these lessons in our curriculum. Diverse classrooms, for example, help students build empathy as they work with and seek to understand students from different backgrounds. Experiential education also helps, by putting students in real-world situations in which they must work with others, understand their motivations, and find solutions. Expanding these programs will help students hone their skills of empathy and reliability. It’s not a coincidence, I believe, that nursing students all gain practical experience while training.
And, as Braun indicates, there’s another lesson for all our students. The same skills that make nurses rank highly on trust and integrity will help everyone in their careers, even if the end result isn’t that they’ll be ranked as well. Car salespeople ranked the worst in the Gallup poll, and that probably won’t change anytime soon. (Members of Congress and Senators were next from the bottom, with insurance salespeople and advertising professionals next.) But car dealers who understand their customers and demonstrates they are reliable — or an ad exec who does the same, or an insurance broker, or even a Senator — will build a much more successful career than one who doesn’t.