How does education prepare you for ethical challenges as a nurse?

There are going to be plenty of different challenges awaiting you as a nurse, from dealing with difficult patients to having to save lives and race against the clock, to racking your brain and trying to solve specific problems for specific people. No matter where you work as a nurse or what field you are helping people in, plenty of ethical challenges will await. But you shouldn’t be worried about them or feel discouraged about going into the nursing profession because of these challenges because you learn how to deal with them whenever you go through the education process to become a nurse.

But how does education prepare you for the challenges that you will eventually face as a nurse, and how do you make sure that you are learning the right things in order to become a nurse who can navigate these ethical challenges with respect and with the ability to make the right choice in any situation? Here’s all you need to know, whether you are just starting out on your journey to become a nurse, or you are heading back to school.

What are ethics in nursing?

Much like how doctors have the Hippocratic Oath, nurses also have a code of ethics that they live by and treat all of their patients with. These principles are by no means the only ones that nurses live by, but there are some foundation principles that can overcome others. For many nurses, these principles include beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, accountability, autonomy, fidelity, and veracity.

From respecting a patient’s ability to determine for themselves what is best for them, to doing no harm in your care, to providing justice and keeping your promises, all of these ethical principles don’t just help you treat your patients better, but they also make sure that you have a bedrock to fall back on whenever ethical problems start to rise up. The Nursing Code of Ethics is going to be your guidebook to most ethical problems, but there are times when even that book isn’t going to do a lot to give you support when faced with ethical duress.

What ethical challenges will you face as a nurse?

Some of the most common ethical challenges revolve around cultural beliefs and religious beliefs clashing with the world of science and medicine. For example, one of the most common issues people face is the issue of abortion. The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate has divided countries, support groups, and even homes as people debate the wide range of scenarios and circumstances that can lead to people needing to make that choice.

Often, religious beliefs (believing that abortion is right or wrong on the basis of religious teachings) or cultural beliefs (such as being raised by a household or culture with certain views on abortion) can clash with medical science. For many nurses, they might find themselves needing to take a position that goes against their own morals.

For example, a patient could be suffering from a cardiac disease that poses a real risk to the health of the mother during pregnancy, and the doctor is concerned that having the child could pose a massive risk. The doctor recommends the termination of the pregnancy, but the patient objects to the thought of abortion on religious grounds. In cases such as these, the patient may turn to the nurse for advice, guidance, and support.

This can create a common ethical dilemma for many nurses, where their opinions might go against the opinions of the doctors and even the patients themselves, and what they might need to recommend is something that goes against their own morals. In order to solve this ethical dilemma, the nurse should refrain from putting their own viewpoints into the situation and should attempt to do what is going to save the patient’s life. While a nurse can refuse to participate in a medical case due to ethical grounds, they cannot abandon their patient if a life is at stake.

Other ethical dilemmas can occur whenever privacy is brought up, especially with adolescents. These are very common, especially with regard to adolescents and sexual activity. Adolescents dealing with sensitive issues such as sexual health may wish for their diagnoses to be kept private from their parents. In this case, a nurse must be very careful when discussing medical procedures with parents or guardians.

Every single state has some level of ‘consent to care’ laws for minors, which outline what to do in this situation. Under these laws and certain conditions, minors can be given care without parental knowledge or consent, or without the parents getting medical record access. These laws are extremely specific and vary by state, so make sure you are up to date on them or that you are asking for help because violating the confidentiality of a patient is something that can cost you your license.

The use of vaccinations and other forms of preventative treatment

Another ethical dilemma that has recently stirred up controversy is the use of vaccines and other forms of preventative care. While these treatments are designed to prevent disease from spreading and have been proven to be effective, many people object to them. Whether because of religious differences, cultural differences, or just ignorance or misinformation about how vaccinations work, people can refuse to be vaccinated or to have their children vaccinated.

Nurses can sometimes feel torn due to both the benefits that the vaccines provide for the community at large, and the rights and beliefs of the patient refusing to be vaccinated. Thankfully, it is not the job of the nurse to provide advice or enforce the administration of a vaccine. Instead, they just need to provide the information that a person needs to make an informed decision. Otherwise, the requirement and enforcement of the vaccine are put in the hands of other government bodies such as the CDC.

End-of-life treatments and inadequate resources to provide care

Finally, two of the hardest ethical dilemmas that a nurse can face are dealing with end-of-life treatment and having strained resources to provide care. Some patients will choose to accept end-of-life treatment and will request to be made as comfortable as possible as they prepare for the end of their life. This can raise a lot of emotions in people who are close to the patient and who might not agree with their decision to accept end-of-life care. Nurses may also have strong personal feelings regarding what is best for their patients. This can be particularly overwhelming when they conflict with a nurse’s duty of care.

If a patient who wants to undergo end-of-life treatment is of sound mind and body and understands the consequences of both accepting treatment and not accepting treatment, then that patient has the right to decide how they want to end their life. This might be very difficult for a nurse, but ultimately their duty is to respect their patient’s wishes and to make them as comfortable as possible.

Having inadequate resources to provide care, especially in the case of an emergency, can be an extremely stressful time for nurses. This can cause nurses to need to push emotion out of the equation and very logically decide who gets care and who doesn’t. Sometimes patients can have their care needs changed or altered to respect the supply situation at hand, and this requires reviewing notes and getting reports in order to have an accurate view of where every patient is with their care. If they can examine who needs care the most, and also who is improving or who can get by on lesser treatment until the supply chain opens back up, it can save lives and make sure that the people who need support can get it.

How education prepares you for these dilemmas

No matter what field of nursing you choose to be in, you are going to face some ethical challenges that force you to make hard choices. While it can seem overwhelming and even a little scary to think about being in these positions, you won’t just be thrown into them. The education you take on about being a nurse is going to ensure that you are going to be fully prepared.

Nursing education teaches them about the Nurses’ Code of Ethics which provides the backbone for nursing practice and gives nurses principles to rely on in any given situation. Additionally, learning about ethics can empower nurses to make decisions and have the confidence that their decision is the right one. It can be extremely easy to become overwhelmed when potentially having to make a life-or-death decision, but having a strong education in ethics can give nurses the confidence to proceed with their choices.

Use a nursing course to its full potential

A nursing course, such as the online accelerated BSN provided by the University of Indianapolis, cannot only help you acquire the knowledge and skills that you need to become a better nurse, but it can also help you understand the world of nursing ethics. With a strong education in ethics, you will be able to take on common and uncommon ethical problems in a constantly changing world.

And don’t be afraid to go back to school to learn about ethics, because the ethics of the world are changing rapidly. People are living longer, communities are growing more culturally and religiously diverse, and the perception of the medical industry and the role they need to play in the world is rapidly changing and evolving. Plus, it will likely continue to evolve as the world and the advances of medical science continue to march on.

Finally, many courses focus on talking about nursing and medical ethics and they also try to incorporate various ethical dilemmas and questions into every lesson. Because for many nurses, ethics are everywhere and many of the best courses empower students to not only learn about ethics but also to make ethical judgments in a wide variety of scenarios and occasionally defend their decisions.

Learning about nursing ethics from a course can be a great refresher for trained nurses. For many nurses, especially those not involved in emergency rooms or other areas of nursing where crises and ethical problems don’t pop up every single day, a course can help them stay up-to-date with modern ethical dilemmas. For nurses who are going back to school, it can also be interesting to rediscover their personal ethics and possibly discover that their personal ethics have changed as they have grown and become more experienced.

Education is the answer to ethical challenges

Whenever ethical challenges arise, it can be extremely easy to become overwhelmed and panic. Even if you do know what to do and how to respond to a situation, it can be difficult because you also have to justify your decision. Constantly agonizing over your decisions and wishing you could have made a different choice can wreck your self-confidence as a nurse and can make it harder to respond when other decisions come around. But with a strong education in nursing ethics, you as a nurse can be reassured that the decisions you make are ethically sound, giving you the confidence to practice to the best of your ability. So don’t be afraid to take any educational steps necessary to further and improve your nursing career.

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