The nursing profession tends to attract those who have natural nurturing abilities, a desire to help others and a knack for science or anatomy. But there is another important skill that successful nurses share and it’s often over-looked: the ability to think critically.
Identifying a problem, determining the best solution and choosing the most effective method are all parts of the critical thinking process. After executing the plan, critical thinkers reflect on the situation to figure out if it was effective and if it could have been done better. As you can see, critical thinking is a transferable skill that can be leveraged in several facets of your life.
But why is it so important for nurses to use? We spoke with several experts to learn why critical thinking skills in nursing are so crucial to the field, the patients and the success of a nurse. Keep reading to learn why and to see how you can improve this skill.
Why are critical thinking skills in nursing important?
You learn all sorts of practical skills in nursing school, like flawlessly dressing a wound, taking vitals like a pro or giving an IV without flinching. But without the ability to think clearly and make rational decisions, those skills alone won’t get you very far—you need to think critically as well.
“Nurses are faced with decision-making situations in patient care, and each decision they make impacts patient outcomes. Nursing critical thinking skills drive the decision-making process and impact the quality of care provided,” says Georgia Vest, DNP, RN and senior dean of nursing at Rasmussen College School of Nursing.
Critical thinking is embedded in a nurse’s everyday routine. They flex this mental muscle each day they enter the floor. When you’re faced with decisions that could ultimately mean life or death, the ability to analyze a situation and come to a solution separates the good nurses from the great ones.
How are critical-thinking skills acquired in nursing school?
Nursing school offers a multitude of material to master and high expectations for your performance. But in order to learn in a way that will actually equip you to become an excellent nurse, you have to go beyond just memorizing terms. You need to apply an analytical mindset to understanding course material.
One way for students to begin implementing critical thinking is by applying the nursing process to their line of thought, according to Vest. The process includes five steps: assessment, diagnosis, outcomes/planning, implementation and evaluation.
“One of the fundamental principles for developing critical thinking is the nursing process,” Vest says. “It needs to be a lived experience in the learning environment.”
Nursing students often find that there are multiple correct solutions to a problem. The key to nursing is to select the “the most correct” solution—one that will be the most efficient and best fit for that particular situation. You will often find yourself in situations where there are few “correct” forms of care, but one that is most appropriate. Using the nursing process, students can narrow down their options to select the best one.
When answering questions in class or on exams, challenge yourself to go beyond simply selecting an answer. Start to think about why that answer is correct and what the possible consequences might be. Simply memorizing the material won’t translate well into a real-life nursing setting.
How can you develop your critical thinking skills?
As you know, learning doesn’t stop with graduation from nursing school. Good nurses continue to soak up knowledge and continually improve throughout their careers. Likewise, they can continue to build their critical thinking skills in the workplace with each shift.
“To improve your critical thinking, pick the brains of the experienced nurses around you to help you get the mindset,” suggests Eileen Sollars, RN ADN, AAS. Understanding how a seasoned nurse came to a conclusion will provide you with insights you may not have considered and help you develop your own approach.
The chain of command can also help nurses develop critical thinking skills in the workplace.
“Another aid in the development of critical thinking I cannot stress enough is the utilization of the chain of command,” Vest says. “In the chain of command, the nurse always reports up to the nurse manager and down to the patient care aide. Peers and fellow healthcare professionals are not in the chain of command. Clear understanding and proper utilization of the chain of command is essential in the workplace.”
How are critical thinking skills applied in nursing?
“Nurses use critical thinking in every single shift,” Sollars says. “Critical thinking in nursing is a paramount skill necessary in the care of your patients. Nowadays there is more emphasis on machines and technical aspects of nursing, but critical thinking plays an important role. You need it to understand and anticipate changes in your patient's condition.”
As a nurse, you will inevitably encounter a situation in which there are multiple solutions or treatments and you’ll be tasked with determining the solution that will provide the best possible outcome for your patient. You must be able to quickly and confidently assess situations and make the best care decision in each unique scenario. It is in situations like these that your critical thinking skills will direct your decision making.
You’re now well aware of the importance of critical thinking skills in nursing. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a high-caliber critical thinker today, you can work toward strengthening that skill. The more you practice it, the better you will become and the more naturally it will come to you.
Critical thinking isn’t the only component that makes an effective nurse. Learn about how else you can position yourself to climb the ranks in your nursing career in our article, "Nursing Career Advancement: 7 Ways to Stand Out in Your Scrubs."
*This article was originally published in July 2012. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2017.
When it comes to our concept of a nurse, more than likely, we are all guilty of conjuring up an image of an outdated stereotype, something we were used to seeing in movies or on television: it’s the image of a woman dressed in white, wearing a white hat and carrying a tray of pills to a patient’s room. She doesn’t ask questions, she simply carries out doctor’s orders.
Times have changed. Nurses need to utilize critical thinking in their actions and decisions every day on the job, which is why critical thinking in nursing has become an important skill to learn.
Critical Thinking Plays a Role in Nursing Education
Today’s nurses play a major part in patient care, and they receive intense medical and patient care training that prepares them for tasks well beyond handing out pills and learn the important place that critical thinking in nursing occupies in practice.
One of the most important aspects of their education, critical thinking in nursing truly rounds out a nurse’s expertise and effectiveness. Developing critical thinking skills, nurses position themselves to manage and strategize patient care situations, deal with multiple physicians, family members and others involved in a patient’s treatment, and enhance their expertise in such a way as to truly excel in their occupation.
Critical thinking in nursing is integral to a nurse practitioner’s success.
When it comes to health care research, the critical thinking required in nursing practice plays a unique role. Of all the health care professionals involved in a patient’s treatment, none stay as closely involved in day-to-day care as nurses. Certainly, they provide medical care to patients, but more than that, they offer understanding, compassion and a chance for patients to talk through not just their physical reactions to treatment but their feelings about it.
Simply put, nurses connect with their patients. A recent article in John Hopkins University’s Nursing magazine, describes how a nurses’ relationships to patients proves vital to the field of health care research. Who better to offer observations, analysis and a human perspective of treatment than nurses in the thick of helping patients get through their care physically and emotionally?
Critical thinking in nursing makes a significant difference to the health care profession as a whole. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates, nurses represent the largest health care occupation, holding over 2.75 million jobs. The medical skills and critical thinking they bring to patient care have the power to enhance medical treatments for decades to come.
Learn more about the different types of nursing career specialties and nursing education options.
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018-19 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Johns Hopkins University.