Ethics in Nursing: Deciding What Is Right and Wrong

By Colleen Moore on Tue, May 27, 2014

ethics in nursingOne of the hardest things for healthcare professionals to accept is the realization that everything we do is not always in the best interest of our patients. For example, some patients would be better off not surviving, as much as we would like them to. How many life and death situations have you been in, where a life was saved only for us to wonder after the fact, “Why?”

This is where ethics in nursing come in.

So how do we know that we are making the right decisions for our patients?

We all know that nursing professionals have the responsibility of being altruistic. This means that we have the ethical obligation to serve others without self-interest. The nurse that is altruistic will make decisions that are in the best interest of the patient. By doing so, they are being a patient advocate and will be practicing good nursing ethics.

Today, with modern technology, we can keep people alive indefinitely. But is that always the best option for the patient or their family? We put patients on life support, hook them up to multiple tubes, and pump them full of nutrients and medication. But will they ever have a chance at a productive life? These are the difficult questions that healthcare providers have to continually ask themselves.

During a code situation, our adrenaline is pumping and we are in a life-saving mode. We feel like being a good nurse who could save the world or at least one person. Be honest, isn't that the way you feel during a code that goes extremely well?

Then it hits us: the patient is on a ventilator, the EEG doesn’t show any brain activity. Now we have more questions to ask.

On New Nurses and Cultural Differences

New nurses have the hardest time with life and death decisions. When my father-in-law was actively dying in the hospital, the young nurse was hesitant to increase his morphine drip. My husband’s family was having a difficult time because his breathing was so labored they were afraid he was suffering. Eventually, she did increase the morphine as ordered. But I could understand her dilemma: she did not want to be the cause of his death.

Maturity brings wisdom, and the more knowledge, the more certitude. Ethics in nursing drive all decisions, good and bad.

Nurses also must respect the cultural beliefs and values of others. Just because we think it is the right thing to do, does not necessarily make it so. A Jehovah’s Witness has the right to refuse blood products, even when their life is in jeopardy. We must respect that belief. A patient may decide not to receive chemotherapy; that is his choice. It may not be right for us, but we have to honor the wishes and beliefs of the patient.

Unfortunately, decisions made by families are sometimes due to grief and lack of understanding. That is when a strong ethics committee can be an invaluable service.

The Valuable Role of an Ethics Committee

Ethics committees can help to make final decisions that are in the best interest of the patient. This is while taking different cultural beliefs, the patient’s wishes, and the expected outcomes all into consideration.

Many times, a good ethics committee can take a huge burden off the patient and his family. Families don’t always want to be the ones to make the difficult decision to stop life sustaining treatments because they then have to live with the outcome. Ethics committees can facilitate these difficult decisions.

The Code of Ethics and the Nurse Practice Act (NPA) are very good guidelines for how we should behave, but these documents are not specific. They do not tell us what is right and what is wrong. We have to decide that for ourselves.

Ethics in nursing is something which encompasses individual interpretation. It is based on individual morals and values. So although both the Code and NPA are guidelines, they don’t absolve us from making appropriate individual decisions.

We need to ask ourselves: are we doing it because it is the right thing to do, or are we doing it because we can?


Anonymous 9 months ago
I believe that most of us grow up with an inherent knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. Ethics is comprised of doing the right thing, no matter what and whether someone is watching or not. We know, in our gut, if something we are about to do is right or wrong. If you get that tinge in your belly that says... "something isn't right"... don't do it!

Anonymous 9 months ago
As a new and young nurse, yes, facing ethical dilemmas is one of the hardest thing for me to deal with. There is nothing like the reality of life and death decisions that make me uncomfortable. Just recently the situation you described is what I've had to deal with. Many a shift, I have found myself driving home with tears in my eyes.

Anonymous 2 weeks ago
My first terminal wean as a young nurse was so traumatizing to me that I almost quit nursing. It wasn't until after a few of those that I actually became comfortable with terminal weaning. Experience does count in ethical decision making. Empathy and cultural sensitivity will certainly help in decision making when faced with an ethical dilema.