Nursing and Ethics

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If everyone in the world agreed on everything all the time, there would be no need for ethics. But disagreement, conflict, and interpersonal dilemmas are a natural part of human life. The study of ethics strives to establish guidelines for men and women to follow in their interactions with other people.

Nurses visiting patient bedside

In 1847, the American Medical Association (AMA) published its first Code of Medical Ethics, and that code, notwithstanding the occasional amendment, survives to the current day. Students pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree should familiarize themselves with this code of ethics if they are going to succeed in the nursing field.

The Code

The American Nurses Association (ANA) adopted the AMA’s Code of Ethics and rewrote it with primarily nursing personnel in mind. ANA’s “Short Definitions Of Ethical Principles And Theories: Familiar Words, What Do They Mean?” sums up the Code of Ethics into the following principles:

  • Autonomy – An agreement to respect another’s right to determine his or her own course of action and a support of independent decision making.
  • Beneficence – Taking positive action to help others and having a compassionate desire to do good.
  • Nonmaleficence – Embodied by the Hippocratic Oath: to do no harm.
  • Justice – An equal and fair distribution of resources, regardless of what a patient has contributed or who that patient is.

From these principles, the nursing industry has extrapolated all of its rules and guidelines governing nurses in the United States.

Patient autonomy is maintained by the freedom of choice and privacy afforded to each patient, according to RN and Ph.D. Patricia Bratianu’s article, “Nursing Ethics – Ethical Dilemmas Faced By Nurses Everyday.”

Nurses demonstrate beneficence by assisting their patients to reach the highest level of well-being possible, Bratianu says. The nonmaleficence guideline is met when nurses refrain from harming their patients unnecessarily (a certain amount of discomfort is inherent in certain treatments). And finally, nurses strive to be fair and impartial in their duties to patients to fulfill the justice requirements of their code of ethics.

Ethical Dilemmas And Remedies

Ethical dilemmas can take shape in almost every aspect of the medical field. Nurses will face difficult situations with various ethical ramifications, both with their patients and in the workplace between their peers.

Nurses may come across patients who opt for medically-assisted suicide when treatment options have run their course. In many places, assisted dying is illegal, and even where it is allowed people have widely differing opinions about it.

“Assisted suicide is an issue where the interests of the individual cannot be separated from those of society as a whole. There may never be a simple solution to the debate,” states nursing authority Isabel Paterson in her article, “The Ethics Of Assisted Suicide” on “There are fears that decriminalizing assisted suicide could lead to abuse and the possibility of killing someone who did not want to die.”

Patients always have the right to say no in any medical situation, even when they are saying no to something that could easily save their lives. Dilemmas can arise when a bariatric patient refuses to diet before a gastric bypass, or when a smoker refuses to quit smoking.

Nurses can be tempted, at times, to lie to patients. On the surface, lying seems obviously unethical. Consider, however, parents asking a nurse to lie to their child about the severity of the child’s cancer, or a nurse attempting to scare a drug addict by claiming that one more dose would be fatal.

The workplace can also present ethical issues for nurses. Social media has become a problem lately for the entire healthcare industry.

“Social and electronic media have tremendous potential affording nurses a valuable opportunity to interface with colleagues from around the world,” according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) in its “A Nurse’s Guide To The Use Of Social Media” on “Nurses need to be aware of the potential consequences of disclosing patient-related information via social media posts.”

Something as innocuous as a nurse taking a picture of a patient’s symptom, messaging the picture to a nurse friend in another state, and asking if the colleague knows what the symptom means could land the nurse in hot water with her employer for an ethical violation.

Healthcare organizations can cut down on the number of ethical dilemmas that blossom into serious issues, according to RN Debra Wood’s “10 Best Practices For Addressing Ethical Issues And Moral Distress” on The article suggests that a healthcare institution offer ongoing ethics education, create an environment where nurses aren’t afraid to speak up, provide ethics experts to help solve dilemmas, hold family conferences for patients’ families, and reach out to professional associations.

Duquesne University Online RN-BSN Program

At Duquesne University’s online BSN program, students receive the skills and experience needed to become effective, successful nurses. Because the program is offered online, it includes experience and education in state-of-the-art technology related to modern-day nursing.