What Constitutes Unprofessional Conduct in Nursing?

By | 2022-10-11T13:45:50-04:00 June 24th, 2022|0 Comments

What does “unprofessional conduct in nursing” mean to you in relation to your own practice?

Many of you may respond that you rely on the phrase’s definition by referring to your state nurse practice act and rules for its meaning. Relying on your practice act and rules’ definition is correct. And ideally you should be able to cite examples of unprofessional conduct that the statute and rules include, such as:

  • Diverting controlled substances from the workplace
  • Practicing outside the scope of your employment and/or your scope of practice as defined by your state nurse practice act
  • Breaching nurse-patient confidentiality
  • Falsifying records kept in your nursing practice
  • Crossing professional boundaries
  • Being rude or insubordinate to others in the workplace

It is important to remember, however, that such examples are not all-inclusive, but provide instances where the conduct is seen as unprofessional. Unprofessional conduct in nursing is a broad term and is  also fluid, meaning other examples can be added to its overall definition.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised many issues that you as a nurse have had to struggle with. Not only have you had to deal with workplace safety (PPE shortages), adequate staffing, and long hours, the media coverage has spurred additional distress for nurses and the public at large.

One particular problem has been the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Often, these distortions are voiced by individuals and even state and federal government officials. The fabrications can be found on social media, blogs, at press conferences, and other media related forums. At times, the distortions of COVID-19 are asserted by medical professionals, including licensed nurses.

As a nurse, you are entitled to your own personal view of COVID-19, its effects, and its treatment. But you are also bound by your ethical and legal obligations not to disseminate misinformation.

Misinformation is defined in a 2021 policy statement published on the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) website as “distorted facts, inaccurate or misleading information not grounded in peer-reviewed scientific literature and counter to information being disseminated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).”

The statement clearly says that U.S. boards of nursing, the profession, and the public expect that nurses “uphold the truth, the principles of the ANA Code of Ethics for Nurses, and highest scientific standards when disseminating information about COVID-19 or any other health-related condition or situation.” Not doing so, the statement continues, threatens public health.

The statement informs all licensed nurses that providing incorrect or misleading information to the public pertaining to “COVID-19, vaccines, or associated treatment” in whatever form, including social media, may face disciplinary action.

You may say this is an unfair approach to dealing with misinformation about COVID-19. You may also say that your First Amendment right to speak your beliefs are being infringed upon by boards of nursing. However, know that no federal or state constitutional right is absolute, including freedom of speech.

Your ability to practice nursing carries with it the obligation to conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times, whether at work or otherwise, and to provide competent and safe care to your patients.

Competent, safe care includes informing your patients and their families of vital and accurate information concerning medical and nursing treatment for their diagnoses and their well-being.  Because the public trusts you, they will more likely than not follow your recommendations or lack thereof.

Because of the obligations you took on when you were granted a license to practice nursing, you cannot share misinformation about any diagnosis or treatment. To do so may not only cause harm or death to those for whom you provide nursing services, it may also cause you to lose your job and the ability to practice your profession.

Moreover, it is your responsibility to correct misinformation about COVID-19 treatment, as many of your colleagues have done with patients and in wider audiences, such as social media blogs and webinars.

Think carefully about the ramifications of whatever information you impart to your patients about their care and treatment surrounding COVID-19 or any other malady to avoid being accused of unprofessional conduct in nursing.

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About the Author:

Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN
Our legal information columnist Nancy J. Brent, MS, JD, RN, concentrates her solo law practice in health law and legal representation, consultation, and education for healthcare professionals, school of nursing faculty and healthcare delivery facilities. Brent has conducted many seminars on legal issues and has published extensively in the area of law and nursing practice. She brings more than 30 years of experience to her role of legal information columnist. Her posts are designed for educational purposes only and are not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need advice on a specific incident or work situation should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. 

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