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What is the Nursing Code of Ethics, and why is it important?

If you’re interested in nursing as a career, you may have heard of the Nursing Code of Ethics. In short, this code is a guide to how nurses should conduct themselves while they are carrying out their professional duties and is based on some essential principles. For any nurse or aspiring nurse, it’s vital for them to have a profound knowledge and understanding of the Nursing Code of Ethics, as it serves as a guiding light while they study and work in the profession.

If you’re interested in knowing more, this article will explore the Nursing Code of Ethics and why it’s important. And if it inspires you to go further as a nurse — or even to start a career in nursing — you can also learn about how to progress your professional pathway by studying for a valuable qualification which will open many doors to a brighter future.

What is the Nursing Code of Ethics?

The Nursing Code of Ethics is a guide for nurses to help them carry out their duties in a way that aligns with the quality standards and ethical requirements demanded by their profession. You can view it in full on the ANA (American Nurses Association) website, but for ease we’re going to summarize it right here for you.

The four principles of ethics

Its cornerstones are the four main principles of ethics — beneficence (the obligation to practice good), non-maleficence (the duty to cause no harm), autonomy, and justice. Let’s take a look at each of these in closer detail.


Beneficence means the obligation to do good. In nursing, it means that nurses have a duty to take actions that are in the best interests of the patient and support them in exercising their rights.

The care they provide must have the ultimate aim of achieving the best outcome for patients, and in addition they must pledge to not harm patients and instead to support a patient’s choices around their care.

However, beneficence can at times be in conflict with autonomy. In the case of a patient choosing a path that will not benefit them or may indeed harm them, a nurse must make a considered judgement about how to proceed and seek advice from peers and managerial staff.


This is perhaps the most recognizable of the principles and translates as. “To do no harm.” This means that the nurse should not endanger life or cause pain or suffering but instead should make balanced judgements about the care they are delivering to patients. So, for example, while in principle treating a patient’s pressure sore may be uncomfortable or even painful for the patient, greater harm will be done by not attending to it.

Therefore, “to do no harm” in this case is to choose the lesser of two evils, preventing possible infection and more serious injury by the “lesser harm” of treating a painful pressure sore. This ethical principle also contains an element of working to enhance the patient’s well-being and reflects the role of nurses to not only care for sick patients but to support their holistic health by helping them to make healthy choices.


This principle forms the foundation for confidentiality, truth-telling, and informed consent. It describes the belief that all individuals are worthy, and therefore their right to make decisions and choices with regard to their lives should be respected. So, in nursing it’s about patients having the right to make decisions about their own care.

In the health landscape, autonomy applies to persons with capacity, excluding children and people with mental, physical, or developmental disorders. It can also be overridden if someone’s right to autonomy would harm another.

In nursing, a practical example of the principle of autonomy being applied is when a nurse explains the difference between treatment options so the patient can choose the one that suits their needs best.


In nursing, justice refers to equitable treatment of all patients under a nurse’s care while at a higher level, it means that healthcare resources should be distributed fairly throughout the system they operate in.

While individual nurses can work consciously towards delivering fair and equitable treatment of their patients without discrimination, the work required to achieve just and fair distribution of healthcare resources may be carried out by nurse leaders.

In leadership roles, nurses can influence healthcare policy, bringing their own experience on the frontline to effect change for a better and more just system for patients from all backgrounds.

Other ethical principles

While beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice are perhaps the most well-known ethical principles informing the Nursing Code of Ethics, let’s also have a look at some of the other ethics that can be applied to healthcare.

Informed consent

This is a crucial element of the nurse-patient relationship. When caring for a patient, a nurse must be confident that they have their informed consent. This means that the patient must understand the procedure; must have received full details of what it entails, including risks and side-effects; must be acting of their own free will; and should give their consent for the nurse to go ahead.

So important is informed consent that nurses must have this ethical principle at the forefront of their minds every time they care for a patient.


A nurse must be truthful in their dealings with both their patients and other individuals connected to their care – for example, family members and other clinicians. This ethical principle feeds into autonomy – a patient can only be fully autonomous when they know the truth. It is also a significant factor when it comes to informed consent as only knowing the truth about the treatment they face can help a patient make a decision about their healthcare.

In addition, nurses are duty bound to be truthful with colleagues and managers, conducting themselves in an authentic and transparent manner in all situations.


Like all other healthcare professionals, nurses are bound to confidentiality, which means they must not transmit confidential information about their patients to anyone else without their consent.

The exception to this rule is sharing information about their patients to other healthcare professionals in the interest of providing healthcare and the best outcomes for the patient. Nurses must also conduct their business in a confidential manner, which means taking care to record, communicate, and store personal information securely.

The nine provisions of the Code

These ethical principles inform the nine provisions of the Code, the essence of which we’ve captured below:

  1. Nurses have a duty to act with compassion and respect for their patients.
  2. A nurse’s first priority is their patients, and this term includes individuals and communities.
  3. Nurses are duty bound to promote their patients’ rights, health, and safety.
  4. Nurses are responsible for what they do. Any decisions or actions they take must link in to promoting their patients’ health and providing the best care.
  5. Nurses also have a duty of care to themselves. They must take care of their own health, character, and professional development.
  6. Through their practice, nurses have an obligation to ensure their work settings are ethical and safe and provide quality healthcare.
  7. Nurses must also practice research and seek to improve professional standards and policy around nursing and healthcare.
  8. Nurses have a duty to safeguard human rights, reduce health inequalities, and support health diplomacy.
  9. Nurses must reflect the values and integrity expected of their role through their professional organizations.

Why is the Code important?

The Nursing Code of Conduct is the very foundation on which the role of nurse is constructed, serving as a guide and support in their everyday tasks. Let’s break this down and discover exactly how it adds value to the role of nurses at all professional levels.

A supporting role

The Nursing Code of Conduct supports nurses in the many decisions they make as part of their everyday role, reminding them that duty of care to the patient always comes first. It’s a reference, anchor, and guide, all in one.

Guides nurses to the best decisions

These decisions are not always easy. When nurses are confronted with an especially challenging dilemma, one which may test their own conscience, the Code of Conduct helps them reach a considered and balanced conclusion. The nurse is never alone.

Offers a different perspective

The Code also helps nurses understand healthcare from a patient’s perspective, reminding them that patients are individuals in their own right who deserve respect and should be treated with dignity and equality.

Preserves best interests

The best interests of the patient are at the heart of the Nursing Code of Conduct. Each of the nine provisions draws strength from the concept of providing the best outcomes for the patient. In fact, every one of the provisions could legitimately end with “…so that the patient receives the best care.”

Retains focus

By reading and re-reading the Code, nurses can remind themselves of their duty of care to their patients, which is set out in every paragraph. If ever they fear they may lose focus, simply touching base with the Code of Conduct will remind them why they chose to go into nursing in the first instance.

Provides inspiration

The Nursing Code of Conduct is an inspirational guide that serves to motivate and encourage nurses through both the best and the most challenging times in their careers. When newly-qualified nurses first begin working, the Code acts as a source of mentorship and guidance and will stay steadfastly by their sides as they progress to more and more responsible roles.

If the Code has inspired you

If you’ve been inspired by learning about the Nursing Code of Conduct and why it’s important, then you may wish to take further studies in the field of nursing. A program of study such as a Master’s Degree in Nursing will take you ever further in your practice, affording a deeper understanding of the ethical principles behind the Nursing Code of Conduct.

You’ll get the chance to learn about fascinating topics such as healthcare policy, epidemiology, family health nursing, and technology in healthcare, giving you the thorough grounding you need to progress your career. If you’re wondering, “What can I do with a Master’s in nursing?” then check out the Master’s Entry in Nursing Practice (MENP) provided by Elmhurst University. This program can lead you to nursing roles where you can help influence healthcare policy and delivery, drawing on the principles of the Nursing Code of Conduct for a better future for patients.

These roles include working in a family clinic as a nurse practitioner, in higher education as a nurse educator, or even as a midwife, to name just a few of the positions that combine profound knowledge of healthcare practices with leadership skills.

Study for Elmhurst University’s online Master’s Entry in Nursing Practice (MENP), and you can start fulfilling your dreams to become a nurse. It’s designed for candidates who have a degree in another field and have a desire to break into nursing. It is offered online to flex around your existing commitments. After only 20 months of full-time study, you will be prepared to sit the registered nurse licensure (known as the NCLEX-RN) and clinical nurse leader certification (CNL) exams.

You will also experience residency and clinical placements so you can apply your knowledge to practical nursing tasks. All in all, it’s the most efficient way to fulfil your vocation as a nurse leader, enabling you to enjoy a dream career helping people who need you most.

Start living your dream

The Nursing Code of Conduct is a beacon of light for nurses, from students through to highly qualified and responsible professionals, showing the way to achieving better patient care and outcomes for everyone under their care. It’s there for the entirety of your career, helping you to make tough decisions and encouraging you along the way too.

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