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Critical Thinking Application In Nursing

With nursing, you never know what each day might hold or what type of care each patient may need. Being able to assess any situation, think quickly on your feet and make a solid judgment call is critical to patient outcomes as well as the safety of all involved. Nurses who are considering enrolling in an online RN to BSN program should ensure that the coursework in the program they choose develops and sharpens their analytical skills.

Nurses who are able to take ideas and adapt them to multiple situations or convert knowledge to abstract or theoretical concepts have developed critical thinking skills. While nurses frequently operate as part of a care team, maintaining the ability to think independently and utilize available resources not only makes you a more effective nurse but also strengthens the team as a whole.

Regardless of the setting — whether it is a hospital intensive care unit or an after-hours clinic — nurses who have honed their critical thinking and analytical skills are better prepared to excel at any number of tasks, including the following:

  • Monitor complex patient conditions.
  • Remain calm, focused and functional under intense pressure and time constraints.
  • Pick up on subtle changes in patients’ vitals or presentations.
  • Quickly change trajectory to address the most critical patient needs.
  • Prioritize tasks or workflows as new information emerges.
  • Evaluate lab results and other incoming medical data.
  • Identify, document, and clearly and accurately convey relevant information to colleagues, physicians and other healthcare providers to provide continuity of care.
  • Maintain open and frequent communication with patients, family members and coworkers.

Nurses who do not regularly use critical thinking can be a hindrance to patient care and safety. For example, learning standard protocols for patient care and treatment is an acceptable practice. However, considering the likelihood that problems unrelated to specific protocols may arise — such as a patient’s adverse reaction to medication or a newly reported pain sensation — nurses who are overly reliant on protocols may not possess sufficient analytical aptitude to properly address emerging situations.

For some nurses, analytical thinking comes naturally, while others struggle to grasp such concepts. The upside is that you can often improve these skills with continued practice, both during your educational and employment experiences.

Many nurses find that the design of their online RN to BSN degree coursework can help develop their critical thinking and analytical skills, allowing them to enter the workforce as confident decision-makers and leaders. Curricula styles can also hone nurses’ writing abilities and the accuracy and depth with which they report data in patient charts, research-based projects and school assignments.

For example, the coursework in an RN to BSN program can provide the foundational elements of evidence-based nursing practices. Through repetition, brainstorming and the application of existing knowledge — even from areas unrelated to nursing or healthcare — nurses can begin to recognize problems or variances early, learn how to ask thought-provoking questions to gather more information, and think through situations strategically to determine the ideal resolution based on the intended goal. Since this thought process may challenge current standards, it can also generate new insights and knowledge which can influence the way all nurses provide patient care.

Nurses enrolled in an online RN to BSN program can expect to sharpen and develop their critical thinking skills as well as foster a deeper understanding of the role these capabilities play in daily practice. As nurses become more confident in their judgment and are able to quickly and accurately evaluate situations, they will be better prepared for the unexpected and ready to adapt to patients’ needs.

Learn more about the University of Texas of the Permian Basin online RN to BSN program.


Nursing Standard: Applying Critical Thinking to Nursing

Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing: Enhancing Critical Thinking in Clinical Practice: Implications for Critical and Acute Care Nurses

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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.

Beyond thinking

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.


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