What is the Nursing Code of Ethics?

9 Min Read Published April 18, 2023
Nurse in gray scrubs with stethoscope

According to the American Nurses Association (ANA), the nursing code of ethics is a guide for “carrying out nursing responsibilities in a manner consistent with quality in nursing care and the ethical obligations of the profession.”

Ethics, in general, are the moral principles that dictate how a person will conduct themselves. Ethical values are essential for ALL healthcare workers, but ethical principles in nursing are particularly important given their role as caregivers.

There are 4 main principles that are part of the nursing code of ethics. They are:

  1. Autonomy in Nursing
  2. Beneficence in Nursing
  3. Justice
  4. Non-maleficence

These principles are ideally what every nurse should be aware of in their daily nursing practice. While ethical principles are sometimes confusing and often taught briefly during undergraduate nursing -- they should be constants in nursing practice in order to provide the best, safest, and most humane care to all patients.

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History of the Nursing Code of Ethics

Interestingly, the nursing code of ethics is suggested to have been founded in 1893 and named the “Nightingale Pledge” after Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. As a modification of the Hippocratic Oath, taken by medical doctors, the Nightingale Pledge has been recited by nursing students at graduations with little changes since inception. 

The formal code of ethics was developed in the 1950s by the American Nurses Association (ANA) and has undergone numerous modifications since. The most significant recent change was in 2015 when 9 interpretative statements or provisions were added to the code of ethics to help guide nursing practice in a more definitive way. 

Many states include the ANA’s nursing code of ethics in their practice statements. Even though the code of ethics is primarily ethics-related, it also has legal implications. Given the importance of the code to the nursing profession, revisions continue on a regular basis.

4 Ethical Principles in Nursing 

1. Autonomy 

Autonomy is recognizing each individual patient’s right to self-determination and decision-making. As patient advocates, it is imperative that nurses ensure that patients receive all medical information, education, and options in order to choose the option that is best for them. This includes all potential risks, benefits, and complications to make well-informed decisions. 

Once the patient has all the relevant information, the medical and nursing team can make a plan of care in compliance with the medical wishes of the patient. 

It is important that nurses support the patient in their medical wishes and ensure that the medical team is remembering those wishes. Sometimes, nurses will need to continue to advocate for a patient despite the wishes being verbalized because the medical team might not agree with those wishes.

Many factors may influence a patient's acceptance or refusal of medical treatment, such as culture, age, gender, sexual orientation, general health, and social support system.

2. Beneficence

Beneficence in nursing is acting for the good and welfare of others and including such attributes as kindness and charity. The American Nurses Association defines this as “actions guided by compassion.”

3. Justice

Justice is that there should be an element of fairness in all medical and nursing decisions and care. Nurses must care for all patients with the same level of fairness despite the individual's financial abilities, race, religion, gender, and/or sexual orientation. 

An example of this is when working at a free flu clinic or diabetes screening clinic. These are open to all individuals in the community regardless of the previously mentioned factors.

4. Nonmaleficence 

Nonmaleficence is to do no harm. This is the most well-known of the main principles of nursing ethics. More specifically, it is selecting interventions and care that will cause the least amount of harm to achieve a beneficial outcome

The principle of nonmaleficence ensures the safety of the patient and community in all care delivery. Nurses are also responsible for reporting treatment options that are causing significant harm to a patient, which may include suicidal or homicidal ideations. 

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Nursing Code of Ethics Interpretive Statements

Revised in 2015 to include 9 provisions, the ANA’s nursing code of ethics now includes interpretative statements that can provide more specific guidance for nursing practice.

9 Provisions of the Nursing Code of Ethics 

Currently, the nurse’s code of ethics contains 9 main provisions:

  1. The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person.
  2. The nurse’s primary commitment is to the patient, whether an individual, family, group, community, or population.
  3. The nurse promotes, advocates for, and protects the rights, health, and safety of the patient.
  4. The nurse has authority, accountability, and responsibility for nursing practice; makes decisions; and takes action consistent with the obligation to provide optimal patient care.
  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.
  6. The nurse, through individual and collective effort, establishes, maintains, and improves the ethical environment of the work setting and conditions of employment that are conducive to safe, quality health care.
  7. The nurse, in all roles and settings, advances the profession through research and scholarly inquiry, professional standards development, and the generation of both nursing and health policy.
  8. The nurse collaborates with other health professionals and the public to protect human rights, promote health diplomacy, and reduce health disparities.
  9. The profession of nursing, collectively through its professional organization, must articulate nursing values, maintain the integrity of the profession, and integrate principles of social justice into nursing and health policy.

The aforementioned nine provisions were implemented to help guide nurses in ethical decision-making throughout their practice. 

Making Ethical Decisions as a Nurse

Unfortunately, nurses are often unable to make complex ethical decisions based solely on the four principles and nine provisions. In these instances, it is important to consult the ethics committee before making any major decisions. Often, other resources are needed when making major ethical decisions.

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How Nurses Use the Nursing Code of Ethics

Knowing the nursing code of ethics is essential for nurses because it will help guide everyday practice and navigate the daily complexities of the healthcare profession. Nurses often use the four major ethical principles throughout a shift, even if not fully aware of them. 

This may include,

  • Providing pain medication to a post-operative hip replacement
  • Holding the hand of a dying patient who is alone
  • Advocating for the patient that wants to end chemotherapy and enter hospice care

Nursing is consistently regarded as the most honest and ethical profession and practicing with the nursing code of ethics is essential to ensuring that patients and their families receive the care they have come to know and expect. Utilizing the ethical codes of justice, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and beneficence on a daily basis allows nurses to provide the safest and most compassionate care for their patients. 

FAQs

  • What are the five codes of ethics in nursing? 

    • The 5 nursing ethic codes are: nonmaleficence, beneficence, autonomy, justice, and privacy/confidentiality. 
  • What is the Professional Code of Ethics for Nurses?

    • The Professional Code of Ethics for Nurses is the guiding outline for how nurses should behave ethically within their profession and how they should decide to act if they encounter barriers that prevent them from fulfilling their professional obligations. 
  • Why is the code of ethics important in nursing? 

    • It can guide nurses’ professional behavior, provide a framework for decision-making when faced with challenges, and provide support and help prevent moral distress. 
  • What is the code of ethics in healthcare? 

    • There is not one board ethical code for every healthcare professional, although it has been proposed. Instead, each branch of healthcare, from quality control to medical directors to physicians to nursing, has its own ethical codes. 
  • What is scholarly ethics in nursing? 

    • The nurse, in all roles and settings, advances the profession through research and scholarly inquiry, professional standards development, and the generation of both nursing and health policy.

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Kathleen Gaines
MSN, RN, BA, CBC
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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