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Nurses' ethical reasoning and behaviour: a literature review.

  • Goethals, Sabine1
  • Gastmans, Chris
  • de Casterlé, Bernadette Dierckx
  • 1 Catholic University College Ghent, Department of Nursing, Hospitaalstraat 23, 9100 Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. [email protected] , (Belgium)
Published Article
International journal of nursing studies
Publication Date
May 01, 2010
DOI: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2009.12.010
PMID: 20096413


Today's healthcare system requires that nurses have strong medical-technical competences and the ability to focus on the ethical dimension of care. For nurses, coping with the ethical dimension of care in practise is very difficult. Often nurses cannot act according to their own personal values and norms. This generates internal moral distress, which has a negative impact on both nurses and patients. The objective of this review is a thorough analysis of the literature about nurses' ethical practise particularly with regard to their processes of ethical reasoning and decision making and implementation of those decisions in practise. We conducted an extensive search of the electronic databases Medline, Embase, Cinahl, and PsycInfo for papers published between January 1988 and September 2008. A broad range of search keywords was used. The 39 selected articles had a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-method design. Despite the conceptual difficulties that the literature on the ethical practise of nurses suffers, in this review we understand nurses' ethical practise a complex process of reasoning, decision making, and implementation of the decision in practise. The process of decision making is more than a pure cognitive process; it is influenced by personal and contextual factors. The difficulties nurses encounter in their ethical conduct are linked to their difficult work environment. As a result, nurses often capitulate to the decisions made by others, which results in a conformist way of acting and less individually adapted care. This review provides us with a more nuanced understanding of the way nurses reason and act in ethically difficult situations than emerged previously. If we want to support nurses in their ethical care and if we want to help them to change their conformist practises, more research is needed. Especially needed are in-depth qualitative studies that explore the experiences of nurses. Such studies could help us better understand not only how nurses reason and behave in practise but also the relationship between these two processes. Copyright 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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