Intended for healthcare professionals

Views And Reviews No Holds Barred

Margaret McCartney: Nurses must be allowed to exercise professional judgment

BMJ 2017; 356 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j1548 (Published 28 March 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;356:j1548

Nurses are critical thinkers

The characteristic that distinguishes a professional nurse is cognitive rather than psychomotor ability. Nursing practice demands that practitioners display sound judgement and decision-making skills as critical thinking and clinical decision making is an essential component of nursing practice. Nurses’ ability to recognize and respond to signs of patient deterioration in a timely manner plays a pivotal role in patient outcomes (Purling & King 2012). Errors in clinical judgement and decision making are said to account for more than half of adverse clinical events (Tomlinson, 2015). The focus of the nurse clinical judgement has to be on quality evidence based care delivery, therefore, observational and reasoning skills will result in sound, reliable, clinical judgements. Clinical judgement, a concept which is critical to the nursing can be complex, because the nurse is required to use observation skills, identify relevant information, to identify the relationships among given elements through reasoning and judgement. Clinical reasoning is the process by which nurses observe patients status, process the information, come to an understanding of the patient problem, plan and implement interventions, evaluate outcomes, with reflection and learning from the process (Levett-Jones et al, 2010). At all times, nurses are responsible for their actions and are accountable for nursing judgment and action or inaction.

The speed and ability by which the nurses make sound clinical judgement is affected by their experience. Novice nurses may find this process difficult, whereas the experienced nurse should rely on her intuition, followed by fast action. Therefore education must begin at the undergraduate level to develop students’ critical thinking and clinical reasoning skills. Clinical reasoning is a learnt skill requiring determination and active engagement in deliberate practice design to improve performance. In order to acquire such skills, students need to develop critical thinking ability, as well as an understanding of how judgements and decisions are reached in complex healthcare environments.

As lifelong learners, nurses are constantly accumulating more knowledge, expertise, and experience, and it’s a rare nurse indeed who chooses to not apply his or her mind towards the goal of constant learning and professional growth. Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on the Future of Nursing, stated, that nurses must continue their education and engage in lifelong learning to gain the needed competencies for practice. American Nurses Association (ANA), Scope and Standards of Practice requires a nurse to remain involved in continuous learning and strengthening individual practice (p.26)

Alfaro-LeFevre, R. (2009). Critical thinking and clinical judgement: A practical approach to outcome-focused thinking. (4th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier

The future of nursing: Leading change, advancing health, (2010). https://campaignforaction.org/resource/future-nursing-iom-report

Levett-Jones, T., Hoffman, K. Dempsey, Y. Jeong, S., Noble, D., Norton, C., Roche, J., & Hickey, N. (2010). The ‘five rights’ of clinical reasoning: an educational model to enhance nursing students’ ability to identify and manage clinically ‘at risk’ patients. Nurse Education Today. 30(6), 515-520.

NMC (2010) New Standards for Pre-Registration Nursing. London: Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Purling A. & King L. (2012). A literature review: graduate nurses’ preparedness for recognising and responding to the deteriorating patient. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 21(23–24), 3451–3465

Thompson, C., Aitken, l., Doran, D., Dowing, D. (2013). An agenda for clinical decision making and judgement in nursing research and education. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 50 (12), 1720 - 1726
Tomlinson, J. (2015). Using clinical supervision to improve the quality and safety of patient care: a response to Berwick and Francis. BMC Medical Education, 15(103)

Competing interests: No competing interests

21 June 2017
Parbatee Siewdass
Assistant Lecturer
The University of the West Indies
St Augustine. Trinidad and Tobago