What Is the Code of Ethics for Nurses? The Key Principles

nurse and newborn

Nurses, like any other healthcare worker, must follow a predefined code of ethics in their practice. But what is the code of ethics for nurses? The topic is complex, but in simple words, the code of ethics for nurses is a set of moral rules that defines a nurse’s relationship with patients, staff members, and the profession itself.

In a nutshell, a nurse must:

  • Promote ethical practice through moral and ethical means
  • Practice in a manner consistent with the national and international codes of ethics
  • Recognize ethical dilemmas of patients and staff members and take appropriate action
  • Inform patients and staff members of any ethical issues affecting the patient

A general code of ethics is defined by both the International Council of Nurses, while specific codes are defined by national bodies, such as the American Nurses Association.  

What Is Ethics? What is a Code of Ethics?

To understand the code, you must first understand ethics. In a general understanding, ethics is defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior, thoughts, and conducting an activity.  

In the medical world, ethics describes what is expected from healthcare staff in terms of right or wrong behavior.

Following moral codes could seem like a new invention, but the code of ethics for nurses origins in one of the most famous manuscripts in the world, the Hippocratic Oath.

The oath is historically taken by physicians, but all ethics codes for healthcare professionals generate from it.

This oath is the earliest expression of medical ethics and establishes the fundamental principles of modern medicine, including the principles of confidentiality and non-maleficence. Although it is not used in its original form anymore, many medical schools have adapted the ancient Greek text to the modern times and still ask their graduates to swear by the oath before being recognized as practitioners.

Therefore, a code of ethics is nothing but a set of rules that define what means moral practice.

Code of Ethics Variants

Because people modified the Hippocratic Oath according to their own understanding of ethics, there have emerged multiple variants of the code based on either deontological or utilitarian principles.

The differences between the two schools of thought are profound, because:

  • Deontology requires that both the means and the goal must be ethical
  • Utilitarian principles state that the goal must be ethical, but it can be achieved through whatever means, even if they are not ethical or moral.

As an aspiring or registered nurse, you will have to follow the deontological principles which are widely used throughout the Western medical world. These include the principles of:

  • Justice: A nurse must be fair when distributing healthcare among patients and must not develop a patient preference.
  • Beneficence: A nurse must always act in the patient’s best interest and do the right thing.
  • Non-maleficence: A nurse must do no intentional or non-intentional harm to patients.  
  • Accountability: A nurse must accept responsibility for their own actions and must accept all personal and professional consequences that occur as a result of their actions.
  • Fidelity: A nurse must be faithful to their professional promises and provide safe and high-quality care in a competent manner.
  • Autonomy: A nurse must accept the individualism of each patient and understand that each individual has the right to their own opinions and decisions. A nurse must understand that each patient has the right to accept or reject all treatments and the nurse doesn’t have the right to judge or force said treatments against the patient’s will.
  • Veracity: A nurse must be completely truthful to patients and not hide the whole truth even if this may lead to patient distress.  

In Summary

The code of ethics for nurses defines all the rules and principles you should use both in your practice and in general in your life, to safeguard the health of your patients and individuals in general during those long work hours.

Ethical codes have ancient origins, and although they are adapted to modern society, they still reflect the fundamental principles of acting in your patient’s best interest.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember as a nurse is that your actions must be deontological. In other words, whatever you do, as well as the result of your actions must be widely accepted as moral and ethical.

Hope this intro to code of ethics for nurses was helpful. Please also take a look at our suggestions for top anatomy books for nursing students.

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