The History and Application of Nursing Ethics

Excellent nurses possess character as well as competence. As a profession that marries medical training with interpersonal connection, nursing is a discipline where difficult ethical dilemmas are commonplace. For nurses to successfully make decisions that impact the lives of others, they must obtain an in-depth understanding of healthcare ethics.

Ethics in Nursing

According to Nursing Ethics: Across the Curriculum and Into Practice, ethics is an area of philosophy concerned with ideal human behavior. Applied to nursing, this translates into the ways in which nurses are expected to behave. Because nurses work so intimately with ethically complex situations, many consider nursing ethics to be a separate subfield of study.

Ethics in nursing may concern topics such as general moral provisions, clinical practice, administration, research, education, and interactions with patients, their families and fellow healthcare workers. The concept of creating standardized ethical rules in the nursing profession began in the late 1800s and continues to the present day.

History of Ethics in Nursing

Since the late 19th century, various organizations have sought to define and describe the concept of nursing ethics.

Florence Nightingale is considered by many to be the founder of modern nursing. This includes laying the groundwork for the practice’s modern ethical standards. The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing explains that among her many contributions, Nightingale:

  • Advocated for the egalitarian practice that all patients should receive equal care
  • Affirmed the right of patients to be tended to by educated and competent nurses
  • Promoted a nursing style that prioritized patient advocacy above obedience to doctors
  • Developed standards of nursing care

In honor of Nightingale, the Farrand Training School for Nurses in Detroit, Michigan, wrote and implemented the Florence Nightingale pledge in 1893. It is considered the nurses’ version of the Hippocratic Oath.

In 1950, the American Nurses Association (ANA) adopted the first Code of Ethics for Nurses. The code is considered “nonnegotiable” in American nursing practice and outlines both general provisions and specific guidelines for areas such as clinical practice, research, administration and education.

In 1953, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) developed The ICN Code of Ethics for Nurses, a formal document outlining the ethical behavior expected in the field. The document remains a worldwide standard to this day and is updated by the organization as needed. The ICN Code of Ethics for Nurses outlines ethical stances and obligations for nurses in relation to their daily practice, the profession at large, their co-workers and the general population.

One of the latest advancements occurred in 1996 with the passing of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This law established national standards for the protection of patient health information. Although not specifically passed with nurses in mind, it nevertheless had significant and direct implications to the field.

How to Practice Ethics in Nursing

The documents described above provide much-needed guidance to nurses seeking to better practice ethics in their work. The ANA Code of Ethics for Nurses, for example, offers a list of nine provisions nurses must regularly consider. Nurses can and should read these provisions in depth to gain a greater understanding of what is expected of them.

Other important ethical behaviors nurses can and should adopt include:

  • Keeping confidentiality of patients at all times, even outside of work hours
  • Respecting patient medical decisions and self-determination
  • Divorcing personal beliefs from patient care
  • Maintaining accountability
  • Protecting human rights while practicing in complex or extraordinary settings
  • Promoting self-care

Ultimately, learning to effectively apply ethics to nursing is a type of education that is never finished. The benefits, however, remain tangible and vital for both nurses and their patients.

Your Work in Healthcare

Nursing can be one of the most rewarding professions available. For those seeking to go further in the field, the online RN-to-BSN program from Husson University can provide the training required to advance in this high-opportunity career. The program is designed to be completed in as little as one year, propelling students on a fast track toward success.