A nurse’s primary role involves tasks like monitoring vital signs, administering medication and assisting doctors with treatments and procedures. In addition to these technical skills, however, nurses also need an understanding of the moral and ethical principles that accompany being responsible for someone’s medical care. This ethical component is so important that the American Nurses Association even created a code of ethics to guide nurses in the ethical dilemmas they will inevitably face as part of their jobs.
Respecting the Patient's Dignity
Though a nurse’s first and foremost concern is caring for the patient’s physical health, respecting the patient’s autonomy and humanity is essential to establishing a beneficial relationship and helping the patient make informed choices about his care. Some procedures may be frightening, invasive or embarrassing for patients. Nurses must balance the need for these procedures with the patient’s emotional well-being. To do this, nurses can explain the procedure to the patient, both in advance and as the procedure is being conducted. Nurses can also ask the patients how they feel about the procedure, and if there is anything they can do to help the patient understand or feel more comfortable.
Nurses are privy to the most personal information about their patients, information that may also be embarrassing to the person if anyone else knew. While nurses must talk with the patient’s doctor, other nurses and health-care professionals caring for the patient, and the patient’s family, they must also understand which information is private and who they can share that information with. For example, with a child, it’s acceptable and necessary to share information with the child’s parents, but an adult patient must request that even family members not know all of the details of his or her case.
Maintaining Ethical Standards in the Health-Care Profession
Nurses represent the entire health-care profession every time they interact with a patient or family member. They also influence fellow nurses and other health-care professionals, and play an important role in preserving the high ethical standards of the health-care community. In addition to how they relate with their own patients, nurses have an ethical obligation to further the development of their profession, according to the ANA code of ethics. They can do this by participating in professional organizations, contributing to policy discussions and serving on committees within their organization.
Conflict of Interest
The American Nurses Association’s code of ethics points out the likelihood of encountering competing and sometimes conflicting interests. For example, nurses may find themselves trying to balance the needs and expectations of patients and families, the relationship between them and fellow nurses and doctors and the requirements of everything from health-care organizations to health plans. When these conflicts arise, the ANA advises nurses to find a solution that serves both the patient’s best interests and the professional integrity of the nurse.