What Is Nursing Ethics?

Did you know that your nurse is also a practicing philosopher? That's right, every registered nurse studies medical ethics--nursing ethics in particular, a set of moral and practical guidelines that influences nursing decisions big and small.

In essence, nursing ethics is a set of shared values or principles that govern the way nurses interact with patients, a patient's family, and even other doctors and nurses. In the United States, the American Nurses Association's (ANA) Code of Ethics outlines a nurse's ethical obligations and provides a non-negotiable ethical standard. It's kind of like an internal compass for navigating the clinical setting.

What Kind Of Ethical Issues Do Nurses Face?

Slight nuances set general medical ethics apart from ethics in nursing. Where doctors are concerned with treating the disease and finding a cure, nurses are dedicated to treating the person and easing suffering. That difference in perspective defines a nurse's ethical standpoint.

Some of the broader nursing ethics issues today include questions about end-of-life care or the place of spirituality in nursing. Ethical issues on a day-to-day basis often involve patient communication and advocacy. Nurses are often the ones working closest with a patient while administering ongoing care. Patients may express desires, questions, and fears with their nurse, and those sentiments need to be shared with the rest of the health care team.

From working with unbiased compassion to standing up for patients' rights, a nurse holds a wide range of responsibilities in addition to the actual physical work of caring for patients. The ANA's Code of Ethics guides nurses through these responsibilities, including:

  • Practicing with compassion and respect for "the inherent dignity, worth and uniqueness of every individual"
  • Always advocating for and striving to protect the health, safety, and rights of the patient
  • Helping to advance nursing by contributing to education and promoting public health initiatives

Nurses specializing in health care ethics may serve on hospital ethics committees or work in a legal setting. But a nurse in any setting must rely on and refer back to the nursing code of ethics throughout his or her career.

Why Nursing Ethics Is Important

Having a code of ethics helps guide nurses through tricky situations and serves as a common reference point for everyone on the health care team. But the primary goal of nursing ethics is to protect patients. Veering from the code of ethics can lead to a breakdown in team communication and physical consequences for a patient.

Where to Learn More about Nursing Ethics

If you're ready to learn more about nursing ethics, visit the ANA's Center for Ethics and Human Rights to find an online version of the Code of Ethics or access ethics articles from their Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. A stop at the International Centre for Nursing Ethics site also provides educational information. And if you want to really dig in, check out the Bioethics Research Library at Georgetown University.

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