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Understanding the Nursing Code of Ethics, Part One

Ethical and human rights issues play an important role in a nurse’s career.

understanding-the-nursing-code-of-ethics-part-twoNurses save lives. But helping others goes far beyond providing medical treatment. Every day, nurses deal with matters of ethics and human rights. To help nurses address these often-complicated issues, the American Nurses Association, in partnership with the Center for Ethics and Human Rights, has developed a nursing code of ethics.* Understanding what the provisions of the code mean can help you enjoy a more fulfilling and productive nursing career, whether you’ve been in practice for years or have recently enrolled in an online nursing program. The code includes nine distinct provisions. Here are the first five. You can learn about provisions 6–9 in part two of this article.

Provision 1: The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person.

  • Nurses can support the right to dignity by respecting the needs and values of each person encountered, whether that person is a patient or a colleague.
  • By setting aside all biases and prejudices, nurses can build patient relationships on a foundation of trust. This trust includes respecting patient decisions and supporting patient choices. Of course, if the patient’s choices are self-destructive, the nurse can always offer resources to help reduce or eliminate the risk.
  • One of the goals of nursing is to enable patients to live with the greatest sense of well-being possible. Nurses can help patients achieve this by minimizing unwanted and unwarranted treatments. Nurses can also help by ensuring a patient is receiving appropriate care, regardless of the patient’s illness, socioeconomic status, or proximity to death.
  • The best way to help a patient preserve the right to self-determination is for nurses to fully understand a patient’s legal and moral rights, and provide that patient or their surrogate with the information they need to make an informed medical decision.
  • Nurses help build ethical, compassionate, and effective medical environments by maintaining good relationships with colleagues and by collaborating with other healthcare providers to meet shared goals.

Provision 2: The nurse’s primary commitment is to the patient, whether individual, family, groups, community, or population.

  • Nurses are there for their patients, and help patients by providing—or directing them to—the resources and support they need. If a conflict arises within a patient’s family or community, nurses can help resolve the conflict in a way that meets their patient’s needs.
  • If a conflict of interest arises in a nurse’s workplace (such as a conflict between economic self-interest and what’s truly right for a patient), nurses can play an important role in eliminating the conflict. They can do this by disclosing the nature of the conflict to all relevant parties and working to ensure the health of the patient comes first.
  • By keeping open communication between all members of a collaborative healthcare team, nurses can help maintain mutual trust and shared decision-making among healthcare providers. This, in turn, helps ensure safe, high-quality, and patient-centered healthcare.
  • To maintain healthy and positive relationships with patients and colleagues, nurses strive to keep from crossing the professional boundary into the personal.

Provision 3: The nurse promotes, advocates for, and protects the rights, health, and safety of the patient.

  • Nurses provide an invaluable service by helping safeguard their patients’ right to privacy. Nurses keep all information confidential, only sharing relevant data with members of the healthcare team, and only through proper channels that follow established protocols.
  • When it comes to research of human participants, nurses play a key role in ensuring patients give informed consent before participating. To do this, nurses provide sufficient information about the research and remain aware of special concerns raised by research involving vulnerable groups.
  • By helping fellow nurses develop knowledge and maintain standards, nurse educators and nurse managers ensure that nurses remain well trained and capable.
  • Nurses improve workplaces by working together to develop and implement policies that promote patient health and safety. In this way, nurses can help reduce errors and ensure, when errors do occur, they are fully investigated and appropriately handled.
  • By remaining vigilant, a nurse can help prevent or stop incompetent, unethical, illegal, or impaired practice. Nurses are encouraged to report such instances to the appropriate authorities, both inside and outside the workplace. This courageous act can help save patient lives.
  • If a nurse has an impaired colleague, the nurse can help by ensuring the colleague receives appropriate assistance and/or treatment.

Provision 4: The nurse has authority, accountability, and responsibility for nursing practice; makes decisions; and takes actions consistent with the obligation to promote health and to provide optimal care.

  • Nurses have vested authority in the care for their patients. They can help ensure quality care by using their good judgment when taking on responsibilities, seeking consultation, and assigning activities to others.
  • Accountability is a point of pride for nurses. By taking responsibility for their decisions and actions, nurses demonstrate the characteristics of fidelity, loyalty, veracity, and beneficence.
  • Nurses look out for other nurses, helping each other whether at the direct-care, educational, or managerial level. Through peer review, staffing plans, credentialing processes, and quality improvement initiatives, nurses help each other solve difficult issues and ensure every nurse has access to the resources needed to assess, maintain, and advance their own competence.
  • Delegating assignments is a common task for nurses. By making sure tasks are delegated to people with appropriate competence—and by monitoring delegated activities—nurses help create an environment centered on patient care and employee development.

Provision 5: The nurse owes the same duties to self as to others, including the responsibility to promote health and safety, preserve wholeness of character and integrity, maintain competence, and continue personal and professional growth.

  • To remain effective in their professions, nurses take time to focus on themselves. They take care of their own well-being by preserving their integrity, maintaining their competence, and committing to growth as a person and as a professional.
  • A strong understanding of health helps nurses maintain their own health. They know when and where to seek medical care, and they know how to keep themselves healthy through diet, exercise, and rest. They also maintain personal relationships and engage in outside activities that help create a balanced life.
  • Nurses believe in preserving the wholeness of character. They strive to be moral agents, providing compassionate care to all patients and helping others clarify their own values and make informed decisions.
  • A nurse’s integrity is one of his or her greatest assets. To preserve integrity, nurses refuse to tolerate abuse and conscientiously object to circumstances they feel violate moral standards. Nurses reserve the right to refuse to participate in an activity on moral grounds.
  • Nurses are committed to lifelong learning. They keep their competence high through self-assessments and through continuing education designed to keep them abreast of the newest concepts, treatments, and concerns in healthcare.
  • Nurses have expansive interests. They complement their professional learning with personal study, social advocacy, and recreational activities.

How Can You Learn More?

Part Two of our article will give you an overview of nursing code provisions 6–9. You can also learn more about the code and nursing by enrolling in an online nursing degree program. Even if you are already an RN, there are several degrees that can help advance your career. Through an online university, you can earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN-BSN), Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), PhD in Nursing, or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Understanding the Nursing Code of Ethics, Part One

Read Part Two of Understanding the Nursing Codes of Ethics.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering online nursing degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*American Nurses Association, Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements, on the Internet at

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