Ethics in Nursing: What Every Nurse Should Know

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Nurse leaders guide colleagues in making ethical decisions.

Nurses make countless decisions each day, affecting a variety of patients in different contexts. In caring for patients, nurses are bound by their professional duty to practice ethical decision-making. This can involve balancing multiple interests, as nurses have ethical obligations to patients, colleagues, and themselves. Advanced nursing degree programs, such as an online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), can help aspiring nurse leaders develop a deeper understanding of ethics in nursing and strengthen the skills required to convey that understanding to others.

Nursing Code of Ethics

The Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements by the American Nurses Association (ANA) is the presiding code of ethics for nurses in the U.S. The code is both practical and aspirational for nurses, outlining the non-negotiable aspects of the “protection, promotion, and restoration of health and well-being.”

The code’s nine provisions outline the authorities, accountabilities, and responsibilities of nurses based on compassion, patient’s rights, the ethical duties of nurses in health settings, and the responsibilities of nurses to perpetuate the profession and uphold the ethical code.

While the code of ethics in nursing is prescriptive, it’s rooted in compassion. Nurses practice with the understanding that health care is a universal right. All people can receive treatment that supports them physically, emotionally, socially, religiously, and spiritually. Nurses need to have compassion for patients, incorporating their needs into their care plans and advocating for them.

Protecting the patient’s rights and interests supports another key pillar of the code. When faced with conflict, a nurse places a patient’s care first. A patient can be an individual, family group, community, or entire population. This patient-first approach reduces the risks of competing workplace loyalties, incentives, and patient harm.

Nurses also have an ethical duty to themselves — to do the same for themselves as they would for their patients. This duty includes maintaining physical health, recovering from compassion fatigue, and taking time for personal activities. Doing so not only reduces risks in the workplace and at home but also helps nurses preserve their character and integrity.

Throughout a nurse’s career, integrity will be tested. For example, patients may cross the boundaries of the nurse-patient relationship, a health care facility may engage in questionable practices, or a fellow nurse may behave unethically. However, it’s a nurse’s duty to contribute to an ethical and safe workplace. A nurse should use the right channels, such as workplace policies or regulatory bodies, to address ethically questionable behavior. Even as the health care landscape evolves, the code of ethics sets a solid standard for nurses to follow.

Teaching Ethics in Nursing

While not every nurse is a nurse educator, every nurse has a responsibility to promote and support the profession. The seventh provision in the code of ethics calls for nurses to support the nursing profession through research, development of professional standards, and creation of health and nursing policy.

Nurse researchers work with groups such as patients, other nurses, and communities to test and create new ideas. After this research is reviewed and shared with the industry, nurses incorporate new evidence-based treatments into their practice. They share their learning with peers, leaders, and researchers, expanding the body of knowledge.

All nurses must uphold the professional standards and policies set by the code of ethics and applicable laws. The code calls for all nurses to contribute to professional agencies or institutions and to advocate for health and the nursing profession. Nurse leaders have the skills and professional standing to help create policy and implement standards.

Advanced Degrees for Future Nurse Leaders

Nurse leaders are responsible for employing ethics in their daily practice and motivating other nurses to follow the nursing code of ethics. Nurse executives and nurse educators play important parts in education and ethics in nursing. Online programs at Regis College enable nurses to advance in their careers as leaders who can teach ethics to their colleagues.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) prepares registered nurses for specialized nurse practitioner (NP) roles, such as family nurse practitioner and women’s health nurse practitioner. After graduation and certification, NPs deliver primary care as leaders in their profession.

BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The online BSN to DNP program prepares registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree for the highest level of nursing education. The DNP curriculum is designed for aspiring leaders who want to take immediate roles in implementing evidence-based practices, improving health care quality, and leading organizations.

MSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The online MSN to DNP program at Regis College builds on an MSN education and work experience. Similar to the BSN to DNP curriculum, the doctoral work focuses on using clinical research to positively change the health care system.

Post-Master’s Certificates

The online post-master’s certificates at Regis College are designed for MSN graduates or nurse practitioners who wish to specialize in a specific patient demographic or aspect of care. An NP may enroll in a post-master’s certificate program to develop a new specialty or prepare for certification.

Be a Leader in Nursing and Ethics

The importance of ethics in nursing has grown amid changes in society and the health care landscape. Discover more about how Regis College’s online nursing programs, such as the MSN, BSN to DNP, MSN to DNP, and post-master’s certificates programs, can help prepare nurses to address ethical questions and train others in ethical nursing.

Recommended Readings

What Are Some of the Best MSN Careers in the Nursing Field?
The Importance of Developing Culturally Competent Health Care
How an Increasingly Complex Healthcare System Is Reshaping What It Means to Be a Nurse Leader


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet
American Association of Nurse Practitioners, NP Fact Sheet
American Nurses Association, Code of Ethics for Nurses
American Nurses Association, Ethics and Human Rights
National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Nursing Ethical Considerations”
The Online Journal for Ethics in Nursing, “Ethics Education in Nursing: Instruction for Future Generations of Nurses”
Regis College, Online Master of Science in Nursing
Regis College, Online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice
Regis College, Online Post-Master’s Certificates