This is a question that arises more often than you would think. Nurses want to know if they can legally refuse to treat a patient, but are unsure of the rules and regulations regarding this issue.
State laws and regulations stipulate that nurses are ethically and morally bound to treat and care for every patient, regardless of the race, socio-economic status, sex, age, religious affiliation or disease of the patient.
Nurses take an oath in nursing school when they graduate that they will do no harm. When a nurse refuses to care for a patient, they are causing the patient harm and turning their back on their oath.
I’ve heard nurses telling other nurses that as long as you don’t accept the patient to begin with, you can decline to care for any patient. I have also heard nurses say that they would refuse to care for a patient that has Ebola. But, the truth is, we cannot “cherry pick” when it comes caring for patients. Every nurse has an obligation to care for EVERY patient.
Now here’s where the plot thickens. According to the American Nurses Association, if certain criteria is met then the nurse does have the right to decline care for a patient.
When a nurse is facing a situation where caring for a patient would violate her morals and ethics,she does have a right to decline care of a patient. But, there are very specific guidelines regarding the right to refuse.
“Nurses have a right to conscientiously object to participating in technologically supported treatment of a brain-dead person,” according to Anita Catlin, a member of ANA’s ethics advisory board. “Additionally, when a woman and her surrogate have made their wishes known, it is unethical to go against these wishes as stated in ANA’s Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements.
“If members of the nursing staff wished to be excused from participating in this patient’s care for anything other than palliative care and comfort measures, they have every right to do so.”
Nurses can refuse to engage in care for patients undergoing interventions such as sexual reassignment surgery, abortions and any other procedure that conflicts with the nurse’s ethical and religious beliefs.
But nurses should be considerate of patients and notify the hiring manager at the time of accepting the nursing position. If this isn’t possible, then notify the nurse manager so she can find another nurse to replace the nurse who is refusing the assignment.
A nurse cannot refuse to care for a patient based on dislike, discrimination or just having a bad day.
The best way to avoid caring for patients that conflict with the nurse’s beliefs is not to work in environments that practice the types of procedures that the nurse may be against. For example, a nurse who believes abortion is murder should avoid working in this setting.
Another area in which nurses may object to care for patients is when a patient refuses life-saving interventions like blood transfusions or life-saving medications.
There are many ethically and morally challenging situations that nurses face every day. So it’s no wonder that there is often confusion about this issue.
If a nurse is in doubt, she should ask. Go to the ombudsman in the facility. Find out what the unique facility’s policies and procedures are. Once the nurse accepts the assignment, they are legally bound to care for and treat the patient until relieved by another nurse.
If you are objecting to the care of a patient and your decision falls within the rules and regulations for refusal of care, then you can ask your coworker to step in a care for the patient and you can return the favor.
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