The Importance of the Code of Ethics in Nursing

As a nurse, you want to take care of your patients and do the right thing. However, sometimes those two goals conflict. This is when you realize the importance of the Code of Ethics in Nursing.


What Is the Code of Ethics in Nursing?

The Nursing Code of Ethics is a modified version of the Hippocratic Oath taken by medical doctors. Originally called the Nightingale Pledge, after Florence Nightingale, it first appeared in the late 1800s. The American Nurses Association (ANA) formalized the code in the 1950s, and it continues to undergo regular revisions.

The Code of Ethics in Nursing contains four main principles:

  1. Autonomy – Each patient has the right to autonomy or self-determination. Nurses should ensure individuals receive all the medical information, education, and options they need to make well-informed decisions. Then, nurses have a duty to support those wishes.
  2. Beneficence – The ANA defines beneficence as actions guided by compassion. This includes acting for the good and welfare of others, kindness, and charity.
  3. Justice – Justice demands an element of fairness in all medical care. Nurses must treat patients equally regardless of status, race, religion, gender, and/or sexual orientation.
  4. Non-maleficence – Non-maleficence means to do no harm. Nurses always should strive to achieve favorable outcomes even if this means reporting potential problems.


How Does the Code Apply to Everyday Nursing?

The Code of Ethics in Nursing provides ongoing guidance for tough decisions. Consider the following scenarios:

  • A patient wishes to learn more about an experimental treatment. (Autonomy)
  • A nurse spends extra time comforting a seriously ill patient. (Beneficence)
  • A wealthy patient demands special care. (Justice)
  • A nurse points out a medical mistake made by a doctor. (Non-maleficence)


How Do You Decide What’s Ethical?

Often, in real life, the answers aren’t clear-cut. For example, let’s say a cancer patient is having negative side effects from a medication. He asks to stop treatment, but the nurse knows this will shorten his life. This presents a conflict between autonomy and non-maleficence. So, what’s the right course of action?

In these cases, nurses must do their best to address ethical concerns. For instance, they may try to counsel the patient about the impact of their decision. Or they could ask a doctor to prescribe additional medication to counter the side effects. Yet, if the patient holds firm, ultimately, they might be obligated to honor this individual’s choice.


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