Ethical Issues in Nursing: Explanations & Solutions

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Nursing

Nurse holding patient hand

Ethical issues happen when choices need to be made, the answers may not be clear and the options are not ideal. The result could be declines in the quality of patient care; problematic clinical relationships; and moral distress, which is defined as knowing the right thing to do but not being allowed or able to do it. Nurse managers, in particular, are susceptible to ethical issues in nursing and moral distress because of their leadership and mentoring roles. Nurses and other medical staff look to nurse managers for appropriate and ethical decisions.

Before stepping into a role as a nurse manager, registered nurses (RNs) should understand the role ethical decision-making plays in the day-to-day work. Through Duquesne University’s Master of Science in Nursing program, students explore the foundations of ethical management and leadership from professors with real-world experience. The coursework not only covers the fundamentals of ethical nursing but delves deep into controversial case studies, giving students the chance to examine alternative viewpoints and develop reasoning skills.

For nurse managers, ethical decision-making stems from the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics, which was developed as a guideline for nursing responsibilities “in a manner consistent with quality in nursing care and the ethical obligations of the profession.” Nurse managers help solve ethical issues in nursing through using their leadership qualities to implement the Code of Ethics in their daily lives.

Nurses’ Code of Ethics

ANA adopted its first Code of Ethics in 1950. Since then, it has undergone several revisions to offset advances and changes in research, technology, law and overall challenges in nursing. The guidelines are divided into nine provisions that cover topics that include human dignity, confidentiality, moral virtue and healthcare as a right. ANA said that each of the provisions covers topics important to the challenges of nursing in the 21st century.

“The code is particularly useful in today’s healthcare environment because it reiterates the fundamental values and commitments of the nurse, identifies the boundaries of duty and loyalty and describes the duties of the nurse that extend beyond individual patient encounters,” ANA said in a statement.

Daily, nurse managers face a barrage of decisions and must maintain ethical fortitude to ensure the health, safety and well-being of their patients and staff. They actively work toward resolving ethical issues in nursing that they find in their workplace.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing

The ANA Code of Ethics provides a standard by which nurse managers can assess ethical issues in nursing. However, the way it addresses ethical dilemmas can vary in different situations. One ethical dilemma that can occur in healthcare facilities is when nurses themselves are not properly equipped to complete their duties. Nurses who notice their coworker’s lack of knowledge face an ethical dilemma of whether they should bring the issue to their nurse manager. To help curb this ethical dilemma, nurse managers can work hard to educate their nurses regarding the Code of Ethics as well as educate them regarding the Code of Ethics for their specific medical facility. Nurse managers can also provide regular trainings for their nurses regarding recurring issues.

One example of a common ethical dilemma nurses deal with is establishing boundaries with patients. Nurses and nurse managers devote their careers to helping patients receive the care they need, so it can often be difficult to establish professional boundaries. Patients should not rely on nurses beyond their professional capacity and should not develop romantic relationships with them or offer them gifts. Nurse managers can intervene in situations where ethical and professional boundaries are crossed by either patients or nurses.

Another ethical issue in nursing pertains to patient privacy. Nurses and nurse managers have access to a patient’s records and medical history and cannot ethically or legally release that information to anyone besides the patient. Nurses should have the best interest of patients in mind, understanding that they need to protect their privacy and medical data.

Common Ethical Situations for Nurse Managers and Nursing Ethics Examples

Even though nursing is a fast-paced job with new challenges daily, many nurse managers report facing similar ethical dilemmas. A recent study found that the most frequently occurring and stressful ethical situations are protecting patients’ rights, staffing, advanced care planning and decision-making. Exacerbating the problem is the large number of inexperienced nurses entering the field, many who have never faced ethical issues in nursing. Such challenges make experienced nurse managers all the more critical to daily healthcare needs nationwide.

The following are some other examples of common ethical situations that nurse managers face:

  • Honesty vs. withholding information. Family members may want to withhold medical information from sick patients to protect their emotions. However, patients have the right to know about their medical conditions. Deciding how to share this information, especially if it goes against the family’s beliefs, can be a touchy situation. ANA advocates for truth telling, or veracity, as a key factor in nurse-patient relationships.
  • Science vs. spirituality. Healthcare, which is science-based and results driven, can impede religious or personal beliefs. Some religions restrict medical interventions and lifesaving techniques. Nurses focus on providing medical care to reduce suffering and to allow patients to concentrate on self-care. For patients or their families with strong religious or spiritual convictions, the focus may be on adhering to a strict set of guidelines. The ANA Code of Ethics states that nurses should respect the “unique differences of the patient,” including “lifestyle, value system, and religious beliefs.” However, respect for the belief “does not imply that the nurse condones those beliefs or practices on a personal level.”
  • Healthcare needs vs. resource allocation. The rising cost of healthcare is increasingly putting nurse managers at odds with budgeting constraints and patient needs. A large number of medical facilities have scarce resources, which puts patients at risk for not getting the care they need. These resources range from medical equipment to healthcare staff. Research suggests that nurse leaders must include staff in the budgeting process so that they can better understand the needs and demands.
  • Autonomy vs. beneficence. Nurses are required to administer prescribed medicine, but patients, at the same time, can refuse them. Patient autonomy can go against medical directives, despite clearly defined needs. Patients have a right to refuse all medical care. ANA highlights that it is important for nurses and nurse managers to understand patient backgrounds and individual circumstances to inform the patient of the medical necessity. ANA explains: “Using ethical principles to arrive at a solution should be done in an atmosphere of caring, respect, openness, and honesty. This process should be based on a sound ethical, decision-making model, using the best evidence-based-practice guidelines available.”

How to Deal With Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing

Nurses undergo many years of education and clinical training before they can become certified nurses, and yet, dealing with real ethical issues in nursing can be far more complex than solving hypothetical issues in textbooks. Nurses can learn how to deal with ethical dilemmas in the workplace through gaining experience and interacting with patients over time. Although nurses have great levels of empathy, it can benefit them to establish professional boundaries with each of their patients at the outset of their careers. Whenever nurses struggle to identify whether something is ethical, they can review the ANA Code of Ethics.


Nurses can also benefit by surrounding themselves with well-seasoned nurses as well as experienced nurse managers. They can rely on the guidance of nurse managers when it comes to situations they may not know how to address. Nurse managers can cultivate educational environments, in which they regularly discuss ethical issues with the nurses in their units. By having open dialogues about ethical issues, nurses can learn from the mistakes others have made and learn how to approach ethical issues and challenges.

Help Avoid Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing

The Duquesne University School of Nursing’s MSN program integrates ethical problem-solving and decision-making to help MSN graduates explore and address ethical issues. Students in each of Duquesne University’s MSN tracks — Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, Family (Individual Across the Lifespan) Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Executive Nurse Leadership and Health Care Management, Forensic Nursing and Nursing Education and Faculty Role — learn how ethics and problem-solving play distinct roles in nursing.

U.S. News & World Report ranked Duquesne University’s online MSN program among the Best Online Graduate Nursing Programs in 2017. If you are interested in advancing your career as a nurse manager, explore how Duquesne University’s Master of Science in Nursing program can help you pursue your professional goals and help you avoid ethical issues in nursing.


Recommended Readings

Family Nurse Practitioners and Professional Liability Insurance

Importance of Nurse Manager Resilience

Using Escape Rooms for Nurse Education



American Nurses Association, View the Code of Ethics for Nurses 

Houston Chronicle, “Legal & Ethical Issues That Health Care Professionals Face” 

Lippincott Solutions, Best Practices for Ethical Nursing Leadership 

Medical Records Info, Top 10 Most Prevalent Ethical Issues in Nursing 

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Ethical Problems in Nursing Management —A Cross-Sectional Survey About Solving Problems” 

NurseChoice, “4 Common Nursing Ethics Dilemmas”