8 Things They Don't Teach You in School About Nursing Ethics

Learn 8 nursing ethics tips that aren't taught in school, including treating others fairly and pursuing ongoing education.
8 Things They Don't Teach You in School About Nursing Ethics

One of the most important aspects of being a competent and effective nurse is always striving to make the right decisions for your patients. To accomplish this, you need a strong sense of nursing ethics. A huge part of this is serving others without self-interest.

While nursing school typically covers ethics, they don't tend to delve deeply enough. Here are eight great things to keep in mind about nursing ethics to help you excel in your career:

1. It's All About Respect

A huge part of practicing ethical nursing is understanding the importance of respecting your patients. This doesn't mean just respecting them as fellow human beings; it means respecting their views, values, and beliefs too. As a nurse, it can be frustrating to watch a patient make a decision based on values that you don't share, but it is important to remember that you are not there to make judgment calls about others' outlooks. By maintaining respect for all aspects of your patients' lives and backgrounds, you will provide far superior care.

2. Make it Personal

Depending on where you work as a nurse, you may encounter dozens of patients in a single week or even in a single day. Needless to say, remembering them all just isn't feasible. Still, ethical nursing means getting down on a personal level with patients. It means learning about their backgrounds and personalities in order to provide the best care possible. At the same time, it means not being overbearing and being able to give people space when they need it. Over time, you will learn how to strike the right balance, and it will help you to excel in your career.

3. Keep it Confidential

While nursing schools typically work hard to impress upon students the importance of maintaining confidentiality, they often fail to stress just how easy it can be to slip up. For example, while on the clock, avoid ever discussing patients with others if there is even the remotest chance that someone else could overhear you. As tempting as it may be, avoid discussing your patients with the people in your life. Even if you don't name names, you can easily fall into the bad habit of not maintaining confidentiality as well as you should. This could harm your patients along with your chances of having a long, fruitful career.

4. Maintain Professional Boundaries

While it's smart to learn more about patients to make things a bit more personal, it's also important not to inadvertently overstep any professional boundaries. This can be particularly difficult if you are a naturally open and outgoing person. Remember, while it is great to be friendly and warm to patients, your top priority is to provide them with exceptional care. If you become too friendly or overstep any boundaries, the lines may blur, and you may be rendered unable to make the best decisions for them.

5. Ensure the Fair Treatment of Everyone

In nursing school ethics classes, you doubtlessly learned how important it is to treat others fairly. However, you may not have been told to do your part to ensure that others treat other people fairly too. For example, if you witness a colleague being unkind or unfair to a patient, it is up to you to speak up about it. Allowing it to go without comment is not ethically correct, as you are supposed to advocate for your patients. The same applies to how coworkers treat each other, and you should react similarly if you see anyone being treated unfairly in the workplace.

6. Own Up to Your Mistakes

One of the toughest things for many new nurses to do is to accept responsibility when they make a mistake. Most develop this skill fairly early in their careers. Those who don't tend to struggle a lot not only with their coworkers but with their patients too. If you do something that causes a problem for a patient, accept responsibility for it. After all, even nurses are human, and all humans make mistakes. If you refuse to admit when you are wrong, you won't keep learning and growing, and your career will suffer for it.

7. Keep Patients' Mental Fitness in Mind

As a nurse, you will encounter patients who suffer from various types of mental illnesses. It is important to understand how certain mental illnesses affect patients' ability to make decisions for themselves. Under these circumstances, you should defer to the next of kin whenever possible. More than anything, however, you should assist the patient in making decisions based on their best interests. Again, even if doing the right thing conflicts with your personal values, it is okay as long as the patient's values and beliefs are being protected.

8. Keep Learning and Growing

Modern medicine is continually changing and evolving. This means that nurses encounter new technologies and methodologies all the time. As an ethical nurse, it is your responsibility to keep learning and growing so that you always provide the best, most cutting-edge care to your patients. This often means pursuing higher degrees in the nursing field in order to practice the specialization or role that you like best. It also usually means taking continuing education courses to maintain certifications, specifications, and general knowledge. Better still, be active in nursing organizations and events, and read trade publications and newsletters to stay abreast of the latest developments in the field.


Nursing is a demanding profession, requiring both physical exertion and mental toughness to navigate ethical dilemmas. By maintaining the highest ethical standards and keeping the above points in mind, you can dramatically increase your chances of becoming the best nurse possible.

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