Professional ethics and legal responsibilities in nursing

Updated April 17, 2017

Nurses are bound by both ethical and legal guidelines that are part of the Nurse Practice Act, a set of laws designed to protect the public from harm and to protect the integrity of the nursing profession. The Nurse Practice Act varies from state to state. The Nurse Practice Act defines the ethical and legal obligations of nurses to provide high-quality health care and to be upstanding members of the community.

Nursing General Ethics

Nurses must respect the inherent dignity, worth and individuality of every person they interact with professionally and cannot be influenced by the person’s social or economic status, personal views or health condition. The nurse’s prime commitment is to the patient’s physical and mental well-being, and any breach of such values can have legal ramifications.

Promote Health

As a nurse you must devote your attention to the health care environment of all patients, ensuring that you meet all patient health care needs. For the ongoing advancement of the nursing profession, nurses must explore and learn new procedures in order to contribute to the spread of sound health care in the community. It is your responsibility to collaborate with other health care workers to promote health care education and support within the community you work in.

Prevent Illness

Nurses must give patients health care knowledge that enable patients to stay healthy and prevent illness -- paying attention to diet and the right dosage of prescribed medications. Encouraging patients to comply with doctors' orders and to avoid unhealthy lifestyle practices is a nurse’s responsibility. Nurses must aim to prevent sickness within the community.

Alleviate Suffering

As a nurse, you are bound to provide the most effective possible relief for pain and suffering. You must always offer pain relief to patients in pain as a result of surgery or from chronic illness. Failing to attend to the alleviation of suffering is defined as neglect and can be considered a legal breach of professionalism. It is not only a nurse’s ethical responsibility but also a legal one to ensure that sufficient patients receive pain relief. Doctors often rely on nursing staff to keep them informed of a patient’s pain levels.

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