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On Public Trust

When Washington state Senator Maureen Walsh recently suggested that nurses “play cards” during their shifts, the backlash from nurses, the medical community, and, notably, the public, was swift. She quickly backtracked, and after an online petition reached more than 500,000 signatures (it’s now upwards of 700,000), Walsh agreed to spend 12 hours shadowing nurses to see what they actually do.

One reason the public was so quick to condemn Walsh’s remarks? People trust their nurses. For the 17th consecutive year, nurses took the top spot in a 2018 Gallup poll on honesty and professionalism. Eighty-four percent of Americans rated the ethical standards of nurses as very high or high. Conversely, just eight percent of people said the same about lawmakers, putting Members of Congress in the close company of car salesmen and telemarketers.

Physicians held the number two spot on the list. Nearly 70 percent of Americans said their doctors held very high or high ethical standards. The poll found that people believe doctors, as a profession, have higher ethical standards than teachers, police officers, and even clergy members. By and large, people trust their physicians to do the right thing.

Trust like the public has in its medical caregivers doesn’t happen by accident. Through more than 100 years of effective self-regulation, physicians have worked to earn and sustain the public trust, insisting on a professional culture that demands high standards for competence. Patients and their families are confident that we have the appropriate knowledge, skills, and experience to diagnose and treat them based on the credible assurances we give them through board certification.

Like our hardworking nurses (consider thanking the ophthalmic nurses on your team during National Nurses Week, May 6-12), physicians aren’t playing cards at work, either. In an average week, an ophthalmologist spends four days in the office and one in the OR, seeing more than 100 patients and performing three or more surgical procedures, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. In between all of that, we’re raising families, volunteering in our communities and for our professional societies, and training the next generation of ophthalmologists to care for the nation’s sight. And in the early morning hours, across late nights, and in those brief moments of quiet between our many responsibilities, we’re working to enhance our clinical knowledge, judgment, and skills using programs like Quarterly Questions because we believe our patients deserve the very best we can give them.

In ophthalmology, and throughout the community of medicine, our commitment to the protection of patients is something the public trusts. To make that relationship possible, we place the same kind of trust in one another to create meaningful professional standards and hold ourselves accountable to meeting them. Politicians who think this leaves time for playing cards must not be playing with a full deck.

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