The legal and ethical considerations needed in nursing

Seeking medical attention is a daunting time for patients. Not only are they feeling vulnerable and perhaps unwell or in pain, but they are also negotiating the language of medical procedures and treatments that can seem bewildering. This means that nurses and other medical professionals need to have a strong understanding of the legalities and ethics involved in medical care to ensure that patients can make informed decisions on how to get the best possible care. This article explores this concept in more detail.

Responsibilities of nursing

The legal and ethical considerations of nursing can seem overwhelming to those just starting out in their careers. However, there is no reason for them to be put off. The legal and ethical considerations will be covered during training and will soon become second nature to them.

The higher they advance their careers, the more likely they will be working with autonomy, making it more important than ever to thoroughly understand all legal and ethical considerations. Nurse practitioners, for example, may have their own practices with their own patient lists. Alongside these greater responsibilities is a generous salary.

For those who are keen to advance their careers, further study will equip them with everything needed to make a success of the role. This study can be undertaken in person, but it may fit better with existing commitments for students to study online. An online Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) program like the one at Rockhurst University is designed for busy nurses to advance their careers. Interested individuals can find out more from Rockhurst about aspects of life as a nurse practitioner including where to find the highest paid nurse practitioners by state.

Whatever level of study a student can achieve, they will qualify with a good understanding of how to practice effectively and within the framework of strong ethical and legal considerations.

Informed consent

While consent is vital in the doctor-patient relationship, informed consent is different. It requires the patient to fully understand the consequences of the course of action including any risks or side effects. Nurses are well-placed to ensure that patients give informed consent. As they provide the greatest continuity of care, they are on hand to answer any questions the patients might have or notice any aspects the patient may be uncertain of.

Patients are often understandably nervous at requiring medical treatment and may regard a doctor with some awe that makes it hard for patients to question them. In their role as a patient advocate, nurses can ask questions on a patient’s behalf, making sure they have an understanding of all the information necessary to make an informed decision.


A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) decision is not taken lightly and with the instinct of the medical professional to heal, it can be a difficult decision to abide by. However, if that decision has been reached, it is imperative that nurses support it. Throughout the decision making, the nurse should offer support to the patient and make sure they understand the consequences of refusing treatment.

Importantly, a DNR does not mean withdrawing care from patients. Instead, it remains imperative for patients to be given the same care and dignity. Some conditions will continue to be treated. Medications that help keep patients comfortable and pain-free will likely form a significant part of their treatment.

Furthermore, a DNR does not necessarily mean that the patient will die in the immediate future and so nurses can continue to offer support to patients and their families, so their last days, weeks, months, or perhaps even years are positive ones. The main duty is to support the patient, so although families are often understandably distraught if resuscitation is withheld, the medical staff must support the patient’s wishes. Ideally, nurses will have helped prepare the families on advance decisions before a crisis strikes.

Legislation and regulations

The further a nurse advances their career, the more likely they will be involved in new regulations and legislation in nursing. When offering input, they need to consider how it will impact the nurse’s code of ethics. This code covers accountability, justice, non-maleficence, autonomy, beneficence, fidelity, and veracity.

Reporting another nurse or a doctor for malpractice or substandard care is particularly daunting. However, it is the duty of nurses to report this. For nurses working at a higher level who can establish practices and procedures in a medical setting, it is important to have procedures in place so nurses can report issues without fear for their own careers.

Involuntary treatment

While nurses are expected to abide by informed consent, there are occasions when this is not possible and involuntary treatment must be delivered. This is particularly the case in psychiatric care or for dementia patients, when the patient’s mental state may make informed consent impossible.

Nurses and other medical professionals have a framework for working with patients unable to give consent. This should state, for example, how long they can be held in a psychiatric unit. Nurses should still attempt to obtain informed consent from the patient but if this is not possible, a family member can give consent on the patient’s behalf.

With involuntary treatment, it is important for nurses to remember the rights the patient still holds. This can include the right to be treated with dignity, the right to privacy, to communication beyond the medical facility, to religious freedom, and to their own possessions. Most importantly of all, they have the same right to medical confidentiality as any other patient.

Legal and ethical nursing

While understanding the legal and ethical considerations of nursing can seem daunting, it is important to remember that it is rare for nurses to fall foul of these. With nurses understanding the legal and ethical side of nursing from the very beginning, they generally find the rules and guidelines useful. They provide a clear framework that protects them and allows them to deliver the highest standards of patient care.

Truett Jones

The author Truett Jones