The Nursing Ethics Code – What does it Mean for Me?

Florence Nightingale, undoubtedly the world’s most famous nurse, lent her name to the first version of the Nursing Code of Ethics in 1893, when the “Nightingale Pledge” was first issued. The American Journal of Nursing first published a draft of the code in 1926, although it was not formally accepted by the American Nursing Association (ANA) until more than 30 years afterwards, in 1960. Since that time, the Code of Ethics has been revised a few times, though the core principles remain the same to this day.

Of course, Nurses are expected to perform their job duties with integrity, while they do the best job possible. She is not only a caregiver; but is also expected to have a wide range of other skills too, including kindness, patience and the ability to relate to her patients. If you are a nurse, you may not be required to take a test on the Code and you probably aren’t expected to memorize it, but you should be familiar with the basic concepts. You may have to go to conferences on the principles of the Code and may need to review cases, especially ones in which a difficult ethical decision needed to be made.

Most people understand what ethics are, as we are forced to make ethical decisions every day. Pedagogically, ethics is really a branch of philosophy – the word ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos which means “habitual usage, custom, conduct and character”. Ethics are the guidelines which should guide an individual or a group in their daily behavior. The first three paragraphs of the Code are probably the most significant. They go over the basics as the nurse’s commitment to her patient, general respect for human dignity and the responsibility to ensure the privacy of all patients.

Nurses put these principles into practice every day by doing things like fully explaining procedures, guarding privacy and making sure that they have a patient’s full consent before taking actions.

The Code of Ethics may sometimes conflict with a patient’s rights.  For example, a patient may choose to refuse treatment or leave the hospital against the better judgment of the nurse. In this case, a nurse has to respect the wishes of the patient even though it may go against some of the principles of her Code of Ethics. The Code says that the nurse must not act to purposely end a person’s life, although they do have a responsibility to attempt to alleviate a patient’s suffering even if may cause death. Sometimes, a person may have some cultural or religious beliefs which may lead them to make certain decisions about their health that most would consider dangerous or unhealthy.

The Code also addresses the issue of medical research and prescribes that a nurse can choose not to participate in this research if they consider it to be unethical. Most hospitals have ethics committees or may even have an ethicist on the hospital staff. He or she can be called upon when a life or death decision needs to be made, a decision that most of us do not like to make. Often the question of ethics comes up in situations in which the health care team is considering the removal of life support and allowing a terminally ill patient to die.