Nursing can be an incredibly fulfilling profession, but it also has its challenges. Every day nurses have to face unpleasant situations wherein they have to exercise good judgment, using the nurse code of ethics. While ethics impacts every healthcare worker, nurses face unique challenges because they often spend more time with patients and are more likely to understand what they want and how they feel. They are also the ones who most often see patients and family members struggling to make difficult decisions.

By definition, nursing code of 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.

The ANA’s Code of Ethics guides nurses through a range of 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.

Ethics is embedded in everything people do, and it is important for the foundation of nursing to be grounded in ethical values. In order to avoid burn out within the profession, it is imperative that these ethical issues are discussed in an informative and supportive way among healthcare professionals within their work environments.

Common Ethical Issues in Nursing

Some of the ethical dilemmas nurses face include protecting patients’ rights, transparency, breaches of patient confidentiality, advanced-care planning, end-of-life choices, experimental treatment, organ donation/transplantation, and surrogate decisions.

One ethical foundation within the nursing profession is to tell the truth regarding medical conditions, proposed treatments, and medications. Although families often choose to withhold truthful information to protect family members from emotional distress, patients need accurate information to make sound decisions. Nurses have an ethical responsibility to work with physicians to ensure their patients receive truthful information.

Patient confidentiality also represents a critical part of the patient/caregiver relationship and a common ethical issue. When patients disclose information to nurses or physicians, they trust that information will only be shared with other professionals who need to know. Nurses have an ethical obligation to protect this right. In doing so, they demonstrate the type of professionalism and personal commitment that strengthens their relationship with patients.

Working with children can also present ethical challenges. Nurses must consider the best interests of the patient, but they must balance this against the wishes, beliefs, and values of a family. Parents of sick children tend to be extremely emotional and distressed, and nurses must weigh this factor while ultimately being responsible to the patient.

Informed Consent: Nurse Code of Ethics

One of the most common ethical issues nurses face is autonomy and informed consent to treatment. It remains the ethical responsibility of nurses to ensure patients have an opportunity to be an informed participant in their healthcare decisions. Nurses are highly educated and capable of choosing the best clinical course of action when one exists, but as long as a patient is considered competent, he or she has the right to deny any proposed medical treatment.

As science and technology continue to advance, questions related to informed consent have also become more complicated. While stem cell research and genetic testing represent science-based, empirical knowledge to nurses, a patient with a particular set of religious or personal beliefs will view them much more subjectively. Some medical procedures are forbidden in certain religions and cultures, even though they may save the life of the patient. Nurses often find themselves torn between their responsibility to support the patient’s right to the decision and their responsibility to do everything in their power to urge them towards the best clinical course of action.

Nurse Code of Ethics as a Professional Moral Compass

Nurses have challenging jobs. They constantly enter into partnerships with patients that often represent significant human experiences, and they leave their mark on each of these experiences. This selfless act represents a manifestation of moral responsibility, and the quality of that moral commitment defines who nurses are both as professionals and compassionate human beings.

Having a code of ethics helps nurses make the right decisions in difficult situations and provides them with answers to moral questions so they can act in a way that perpetuates their desire to protect the health, safety, and rights of patients at all times.

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