For the 21st year in a row, nurses are viewed as the nation’s most honest and ethical professionals, according to an annual Gallup poll.

It’s too bad that some prosecutors are doing their best to muddy the reputations of those frontline workers, efforts that also threaten to undermine much-needed work to make nursing jobs appealing to a new generation.

The American Nurses Association this week said the ranking in this year’s poll “directly reflects both nurses’ unparalleled skill and deep connection to their patients and communities.” Here at McKnight’s, we see stories of nurses’ unmatched devotion to their patients and their skilled nursing facilities on a regular basis.

But it’s human nature to note the ones that run counter to the standard. In 2022, the year in which the poll was conducted, we saw two glaring examples of prosecutorial discretion that did the nursing sector great injustice.

In May, former Vanderbilt nurse RaDonda Vaught was sentenced to probation for a deadly drug medication error that prosecutors turned into a criminally negligent homicide and abuse case. And in August, a nursing home LPN was found not guilty of abduction after being prosecuted for using a gait belt to restrain a patient at high-risk of falling. In that Ohio case, county prosecutors divided the staff and made nurses testify against each other in hopes of scoring a win.

Taken together, these two prosecutions demonstrate how risky it has become for nurses to make mistakes in the course of their work.

Nursing in any environment is a high-pressure career with constantly changing demands and urgent decision-making; mistakes will happen whether a building is fully staffed or under-staffed.  

But our medical system works because, traditionally, nurses have been encouraged to report their errors and help improve systems that can prevent similar mishaps in the future. Surely we want those who make routine and sloppy errors to be weeded out. Same obviously goes for those who use their position of trust to harm patients intentionally. 

But for those whose mistakes are rare and reveal contributing factors that can be modified, we must ensure our system continues to trust in caregivers and allows them to be whistleblowers without sacrificing careers they love.

Prosecuting mistakes does not a victory make, if such highly publicized cases chase existing workers from the field and turn potential candidates off entirely.

No healthcare system or facility can be perfect, nor any individual nurse. Our justice system must continue to trust in frontline staff and to show them the same level of respect that thousands of Americans already do. 

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily the opinion of McKnight’s.