Major Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing

Each day, nurses face situations that they may not know how to deal with, despite years in the profession. These situations usually involve some type of ethical decision that must be made. These ethical dilemmas pop up in every hospital, clinic, or other healthcare facility on a daily basis. If you’ve ever encountered this type of dilemma in your nursing career, you know just how important it is to do your best to make the right call. And we know how difficult that can be. We’ve rounded up some of the most common ethical dilemmas you will face in your nursing career, so keep reading for more information.

What is an Ethical Dilemma?

An ethical dilemma is directly related to the conundrum of figuring out the “right” thing to do in a given circumstance where there is no clear answer. Since each person abides by their own set of ethics and morals, there generally is no right or wrong answer to the situation. The definition of “ethical” can vary from person to person, especially in the world of healthcare. And while ethics can be taught in classes and trainings, it is virtually impossible for every person to come to an agreement on what is or is not ethical. Each nurse will have their own beliefs and values that will influence how they interpret the situation and possible solutions to it.

Nurses and doctors take upon them the task of “doing good and causing no harm.” Even though this sounds fairly straightforward, professionals will have different interpretations of the basic concepts of good and harm. This means that while all nurses will have the same end-goal, how they arrive there may differ, which can often cause conflict.

Here is a list of some of the most common ethical dilemmas nurses face.

  1. Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice

The concept of abortion, a see in the news for decades, can cause a lot of conflict. Most people fall either into the pro-life or pro-choice camps. Pro-life adherents are against abortion and may even consider abortion murder in all cases. Pro-choice believers feel that a woman should have the opportunity to make her own decision about whether or not to have an abortion.

Many nurses may face a dilemma if they are asked to care for a patient that has had an abortion. Some nurses may consider the patient a murderer and refrain from offering care. This raises the question of whether a nurse’s own personal beliefs should affect the level or quality of care for a patient with whom she disagrees.

  1. Transparency vs. Deception

It may seem that telling the absolute truth is always the best course of action in healthcare. After all, don’t patients have a right to know what is going on with their own bodies? However, one must also take into consideration the family of the patient. Obviously, the family will know the patient best; they may be correct when if they say that telling the patient the truth about their diagnosis or condition might be harmful to the patient. So are nurses obligated to tell the truth at all times, regardless of the advice from people who can possibly foresee the outcome of said truth-telling?

  1. The Worth of Life

There is a finite amount of resources in the world, and there are undoubtedly people who are using up more than their fair share of them. But is it up to nurses to decide who is using up too much in healthcare?

One example of using limited resources that nurses will encounter are patients on life support. Existing in a vegetative state, these patients often show no sign of improving, yet rely on costly interventions to keep them alive. The dilemma here is at what point must a provider make the call that life support should be suspended? And how should they relay that determination to family members who insist on keeping life support going?

  1. Data vs. Belief

This is a huge dilemma that is presented to nurses each day. Nurses are highly educated professionals with a wealth of knowledge and scientific understanding. They are also humans that have their own values and belief systems, which can make decisions extra tough, as we saw with the pro-choice vs. pro-life dilemma.

However, patients also have their own beliefs. The difference is that they lack the medical knowledge and empirical evidence that nurses are familiar with. A nurse must then reconcile a patient’s value-based opinion related to their care with factual proof. It often comes down to whether it is ethical to force recognized effective treatment on patients who would rather follow religious or cultural beliefs, even if it means doing themselves harm.

Final Thoughts

As a nurse, you know that making decisions is a challenge you must take on each day. With the ethical dilemmas you face, it can seem impossible to do the right thing. If you’re having a hard time finding out what direction to take, talk with your colleagues and superiors to get more information and differing opinions. It won’t be easy, but you’ll eventually be able to make the best decision you can.