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Nurses and the Coronavirus

Nurses are the Most Respected Profession

Gallup conducts a poll each year of how Americans view the honesty and ethics in a variety of professions. The latest poll results for 2019 were issued on January 6, 2020. For the 18th year in a row, Americans rate the honesty and ethics of nurses highest among a list of professions. Currently, 85 percent say nurses’ honesty and ethical standards are “very high” or “high,” essentially unchanged from the 84 percent who said the same in 2018. Nurses are followed by medical doctors.

Why are nurses rated so high? The simple answer is they interact directly with patients. Doctors may come and go with respect to treatment, but nurses are always there – to look out for their patients; make sure they are comfortable; and help them in the recovery stage.

It goes much deeper than that. The Nursing Code of Ethics defines professional nursing as: “the protection, promotion, and optimization of health and abilities, prevention of illness and injury, alleviation of suffering through the diagnosis and treatment of human response, and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, communities and populations.”

An interesting aspect of the nurses top ranking is that many studies have shown general dissatisfaction of nurses with their work environment. In the era of managed care, nurse turnover rates are at the highest levels of any profession. Nurse shortages lead to unreasonable demands and additional stress on the job, and doctors who may not value and respect what they do contribute to burnout. As a society, we do not value caregivers enough; they are not well paid for the sacrifices and the love and attention they devote to their patients/clients; and the internal rewards of the profession are lacking.

It's clear to me that nurses and other health providers have acted in ways that support the high ranking during the coronavirus. They have been risking their own health to serve others, the essence of ethical behavior. In other words, they have earned the high ranking and then some.

Doctors and nurses have been under a great deal of pressure during the coronavirus ordeal. They go to work every day risking their own well-being not only by being at work but because of reported shortages in masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators to treat the sick. They watch as bodies pile up and in some cases are stored in refrigerated units. They witness first-hand the agony of their patients. They are called on to serve as a support system for their patients at a time when family can’t visit them because of social distancing or to avoid getting the virus themselves. Staffing problems in cities like New York and New Orleans increases the stress level and the worst is yet to come. Nurses

Health professionals work in fear for their own safety. If too many doctors and nurses get infected themselves and can’t care for their patients, the health system’s capacity is going to deteriorate even further.

The ethical decisions nurses face during the coronavirus can be overwhelming and cause great distress for nurses and other health-care professionals. We’re talking about allocating resources during the pandemic. It means non-coronavirus patients have to be dislocated; supplies are scarce; masks and other protective equipment are bring reused; and how a limited number of staff trying to serve an increasing number of patients and provide life-saving medical care.

Many have said that nurses, doctors and other health professionals on the front lines should receive "hazard" pay for their work during the coronavirus. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "Hazard pay means additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship. Work duty that causes extreme physical discomfort and distress which is not adequately alleviated by protective devices is deemed to impose a physical hardship." Some believe the next stimulus package should include money for a "heroes fund" and bonuses to recruit needed health care workers. I agree. 

From an ethical perspective, the coronavirus ordeal has shined its light on whether, as a society, we should pursue our self-interest without regard to the interests of others, an egoist approach to ethical decision-making. Or, do we have an ethical responsibility to look out for others: weigh their well-being in the course of making decisions we believe are in our interests – an enlightened egoism approach. Nurses and other health professionals are using that approach as well as recognizing the public has a right to expect the best medical care as possible under the circumstances. 

It’s clear that nurses and other health professionals have committed to a community-wide ethical standard. They are acting in a way that best serves their community of people that rely on them for medical care. This is why nurses are so highly rated for their ethics.

I truly hope that when we come out on the other side of the pandemic, we will begin the dialogue about why we need to come together as Americans and stop the bickering and political divide that can lead to uncivil behavior.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 14, 2020. Dr. Mintz recently published a book Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.

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