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Ethics Nurse: Nurses On Hospital Ethics Committees

One unique avenue your nursing career can take is becoming part of a hospital ethics committee. Nurses working on hospital ethics committees serve the patients and their families as patient advocates, while also operating as a hospital representative. While serving on the committee, they offer their perspective to the committee and also offer the patient assurance, information, and support regarding important ethical issues that arise while providing medical or nursing care.

The role of these ethics committees is to review specific situations that arise, involving moral or ethical aspects of medical care. These situations can cover a variety of things, including informed consent, advance directives, resuscitation directives, or organ and tissue donation. One particularly important one is end-of-life situations where the family of the patient has to decide whether or not to continue life support. Other times, patients or their families may feel that their rights have been overlooked and feel they need recourse for those actions. The ethics committee would attempt to remedy any such conflict as well. Additionally, ethics committees usually publish an ethics handbook for their employees, outlining patient rights, code of ethics, and professional conduct and guidelines for bioethical issues. These committees have only come into being in the last three decades and are still essentially growing and forming, particularly with the continual advancement of health care technology and the accompanying bioethics issues that have arisen with these advancements.

Ethics committees in hospitals are generally made up of physicians, social workers, medical ethicists, community volunteers and often a chaplain and an attorney, in addition to nurses. Nurses in particular, with their medical training and their direct patient care, are a valuable component linking the medical staff and the families during these times. Unlike physicians and the non-medical staff on the committee, nurses spend a lot of their working hours at patients’ bedsides. They have an understanding of both the medical side as well as the personal side of these equations, and their input and opinion in these scenarios is invaluable. Nurses may work on ethics committees at hospitals, or in residential facilities or nursing homes. These positions are often voluntary, and only about 18% of ethics committee members receive payment for their work, according to the American Medical Association news. However, if you are interested in nursing ethics and seeking to expand your role in your healthcare career, this could be another fulfilling aspect to your career.

If you are a registered nurse or plan to become one and are interested in promoting the rights of patients, families and other health care workers, consider this option. Ethics nursing is a great way to voice your beliefs and make a difference in the nursing and health care field. Being a registered, licensed nurse is the first requirement, so if you have not already done so you will need to find an entry to nursing program. A bachelor’s degree in Nursing is considered ideal by most employers as well as the nursing organizations. An associate’s degree in nursing is also an option and you can always go back to school to complete an RN to BSN program. Once you earn your degree, you will also have to pass your state’s board of nursing licensure exam. If you are planning to pursue a master’s degree in nursing, you could eventually join the academic community conducting research and teaching nursing ethics. Continuing education courses on nursing ethics are also available through the American Nurses Association (ANA) to help you learn about the nursing code of ethics and familiarize yourself with the complexity of the ethical issues that confront medical professionals, patients and families. As a current registered nurse, additional nursing ethics education through the ANA may be enough to get you started on your way to working on your hospital’s ethics committee.

(Sources: University of Louisville Ethics Committee, PubMed U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health - "The role of the nurse on hospital ethics committees" - Murphy P., New York State Nurses Association, American Nurses Association Continuing Education, "Willing, but waiting: Hospital ethics committees" Kevin B. O'Reilly, amednews staff. Jan. 28, 2008)

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