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Brain, Decision Making and Mental Health pp 179–189 Cite as

Critical Thinking in Nursing

  • Şefika Dilek Güven 3  
  • First Online: 02 January 2023

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Part of the book series: Integrated Science ((IS,volume 12))

Critical thinking is an integral part of nursing, especially in terms of professionalization and independent clinical decision-making. It is necessary to think critically to provide adequate, creative, and effective nursing care when making the right decisions for practices and care in the clinical setting and solving various ethical issues encountered. Nurses should develop their critical thinking skills so that they can analyze the problems of the current century, keep up with new developments and changes, cope with nursing problems they encounter, identify more complex patient care needs, provide more systematic care, give the most appropriate patient care in line with the education they have received, and make clinical decisions. The present chapter briefly examines critical thinking, how it relates to nursing, and which skills nurses need to develop as critical thinkers.

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critical thinking for nurses involves which of the following statements

Critical thinking in nursing.

This painting shows a nurse and how she is thinking critically. On the right side are the stages of critical thinking and on the left side, there are challenges that a nurse might face. The entire background is also painted in several colors to represent a kind of intellectual puzzle. It is made using colored pencils and markers.

(Adapted with permission from the Association of Science and Art (ASA), Universal Scientific Education and Research Network (USERN); Painting by Mahshad Naserpour).

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Unless the individuals of a nation thinkers, the masses can be drawn in any direction. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

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Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University, Semra ve Vefa Küçük, Faculty of Health Sciences, Nursing Department, 2000 Evler Mah. Damat İbrahim Paşa Yerleşkesi, Nevşehir, Turkey

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Güven, Ş.D. (2023). Critical Thinking in Nursing. In: Rezaei, N. (eds) Brain, Decision Making and Mental Health. Integrated Science, vol 12. Springer, Cham.

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What is Critical Thinking in Nursing? (With Examples, Importance, & How to Improve)

critical thinking for nurses involves which of the following statements

Successful nursing requires learning several skills used to communicate with patients, families, and healthcare teams. One of the most essential skills nurses must develop is the ability to demonstrate critical thinking. If you are a nurse, perhaps you have asked if there is a way to know how to improve critical thinking in nursing? As you read this article, you will learn what critical thinking in nursing is and why it is important. You will also find 18 simple tips to improve critical thinking in nursing and sample scenarios about how to apply critical thinking in your nursing career.

What Is Critical Thinking In Nursing?

4 reasons why critical thinking is so important in nursing, 1. critical thinking skills will help you anticipate and understand changes in your patient’s condition., 2. with strong critical thinking skills, you can make decisions about patient care that is most favorable for the patient and intended outcomes., 3. strong critical thinking skills in nursing can contribute to innovative improvements and professional development., 4. critical thinking skills in nursing contribute to rational decision-making, which improves patient outcomes., what are the 8 important attributes of excellent critical thinking in nursing, 1. the ability to interpret information:, 2. independent thought:, 3. impartiality:, 4. intuition:, 5. problem solving:, 6. flexibility:, 7. perseverance:, 8. integrity:, examples of poor critical thinking vs excellent critical thinking in nursing, 1. scenario: patient/caregiver interactions, poor critical thinking:, excellent critical thinking:, 2. scenario: improving patient care quality, 3. scenario: interdisciplinary collaboration, 4. scenario: precepting nursing students and other nurses, how to improve critical thinking in nursing, 1. demonstrate open-mindedness., 2. practice self-awareness., 3. avoid judgment., 4. eliminate personal biases., 5. do not be afraid to ask questions., 6. find an experienced mentor., 7. join professional nursing organizations., 8. establish a routine of self-reflection., 9. utilize the chain of command., 10. determine the significance of data and decide if it is sufficient for decision-making., 11. volunteer for leadership positions or opportunities., 12. use previous facts and experiences to help develop stronger critical thinking skills in nursing., 13. establish priorities., 14. trust your knowledge and be confident in your abilities., 15. be curious about everything., 16. practice fair-mindedness., 17. learn the value of intellectual humility., 18. never stop learning., 4 consequences of poor critical thinking in nursing, 1. the most significant risk associated with poor critical thinking in nursing is inadequate patient care., 2. failure to recognize changes in patient status:, 3. lack of effective critical thinking in nursing can impact the cost of healthcare., 4. lack of critical thinking skills in nursing can cause a breakdown in communication within the interdisciplinary team., useful resources to improve critical thinking in nursing, youtube videos, my final thoughts, frequently asked questions answered by our expert, 1. will lack of critical thinking impact my nursing career, 2. usually, how long does it take for a nurse to improve their critical thinking skills, 3. do all types of nurses require excellent critical thinking skills, 4. how can i assess my critical thinking skills in nursing.

• Ask relevant questions • Justify opinions • Address and evaluate multiple points of view • Explain assumptions and reasons related to your choice of patient care options

5. Can I Be a Nurse If I Cannot Think Critically?

critical thinking for nurses involves which of the following statements

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Critical Thinking: The Development of an Essential Skill for Nursing Students

Ioanna v. papathanasiou.

1 Nursing Department, Technological Educational Institute of Thessaly, Greece

Christos F. Kleisiaris

2 Nursing Department, Technological Educational Institute of Crete, Greece

Evangelos C. Fradelos

3 State Mental Hospital of Attica “Daphne”, Greece

Katerina Kakou

Lambrini kourkouta.

4 Nursing Department, Alexander Technological Educational Institute of Thessaloniki, Greece

Critical thinking is defined as the mental process of actively and skillfully perception, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of collected information through observation, experience and communication that leads to a decision for action. In nursing education there is frequent reference to critical thinking and to the significance that it has in daily clinical nursing practice. Nursing clinical instructors know that students face difficulties in making decisions related to clinical practice. The main critical thinking skills in which nursing students should be exercised during their studies are critical analysis, introductory and concluding justification, valid conclusion, distinguish of facts and opinions, evaluation the credibility of information sources, clarification of concepts and recognition of conditions. Specific behaviors are essentials for enhancing critical thinking. Nursing students in order to learn and apply critical thinking should develop independence of thought, fairness, perspicacity in personal and social level, humility, spiritual courage, integrity, perseverance, self-confidence, interest for research and curiosity. Critical thinking is an essential process for the safe, efficient and skillful nursing practice. The nursing education programs should adopt attitudes that promote critical thinking and mobilize the skills of critical reasoning.


Critical thinking is applied by nurses in the process of solving problems of patients and decision-making process with creativity to enhance the effect. It is an essential process for a safe, efficient and skillful nursing intervention. Critical thinking according to Scriven and Paul is the mental active process and subtle perception, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information collected or derived from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or the communication leading to conviction for action ( 1 ).

So, nurses must adopt positions that promote critical thinking and refine skills of critical reasoning in order a meaningful assessment of both the previous and the new information and decisions taken daily on hospitalization and use of limited resources, forces you to think and act in cases where there are neither clear answers nor specific procedures and where opposing forces transform decision making in a complex process ( 2 ).

Critical thinking applies to nurses as they have diverse multifaceted knowledge to handle the various situations encountered during their shifts still face constant changes in an environment with constant stress of changing conditions and make important decisions using critical thinking to collect and interpret information that are necessary for making a decision ( 3 ).

Critical thinking, combined with creativity, refine the result as nurses can find specific solutions to specific problems with creativity taking place where traditional interventions are not effective. Even with creativity, nurses generate new ideas quickly, get flexible and natural, create original solutions to problems, act independently and with confidence, even under pressure, and demonstrate originality ( 4 ).

The aim of the study is to present the basic skills of critical thinking, to highlight critical thinking as a essential skill for nursing education and a fundamental skill for decision making in nursing practice. Moreover to indicate the positive effect and relation that critical thinking has on professional outcomes.


Nurses in their efforts to implement critical thinking should develop some methods as well as cognitive skills required in analysis, problem solving and decision making ( 5 ). These skills include critical analysis, introductory and concluding justification, valid conclusion, distinguishing facts and opinions to assess the credibility of sources of information, clarification of concepts, and recognition conditions ( 6 , 7 ).

Critical analysis is applied to a set of questions that relate to the event or concept for the determination of important information and ideas and discarding the unnecessary ones. It is, thus, a set of criteria to rationalize an idea where one must know all the questions but to use the appropriate one in this case ( 8 ).

The Socratic Method, where the question and the answer are sought, is a technique in which one can investigate below the surface, recognize and examine the condition, look for the consequences, investigate the multiple data views and distinguish between what one knows and what he simply believes. This method should be implemented by nurses at the end of their shifts, when reviewing patient history and progress, planning the nursing plan or discussing the treatment of a patient with colleagues ( 9 ).

The Inference and Concluding justification are two other critical thinking skills, where the justification for inductive generalizations formed from a set of data and observations, which when considered together, specific pieces of information constitute a special interpretation ( 10 ). In contrast, the justification is deduced from the general to the specific. According to this, nurse starts from a conceptual framework–for example, the prioritization of needs by Maslow or a context–evident and gives descriptive interpretation of the patient’s condition with respect to this framework. So, the nurse who uses drawing needs categorizes information and defines the problem of the patient based on eradication, nutrition or need protection.

In critical thinking, the nurses still distinguish claims based on facts, conclusions, judgments and opinions. The assessment of the reliability of information is an important stage of critical thinking, where the nurse needs to confirm the accuracy of this information by checking other evidence and informants ( 10 ).

The concepts are ideas and opinions that represent objects in the real world and the importance of them. Each person has developed its own concepts, where they are nested by others, either based on personal experience or study or other activities. For a clear understanding of the situation of the patient, the nurse and the patient should be in agreement with the importance of concepts.

People also live under certain assumptions. Many believe that people generally have a generous nature, while others believe that it is a human tendency to act in its own interest. The nurse must believe that life should be considered as invaluable regardless of the condition of the patient, with the patient often believing that quality of life is more important than duration. Nurse and patient, realizing that they can make choices based on these assumptions, can work together for a common acceptable nursing plan ( 11 ).


The person applying critical thinking works to develop the following attitudes and characteristics independence of thought, fairness, insight into the personal and public level, humble intellect and postpone the crisis, spiritual courage, integrity, perseverance, self-confidence, research interest considerations not only behind the feelings and emotions but also behind the thoughts and curiosity ( 12 ).

Independence of Thought

Individuals who apply critical thinking as they mature acquire knowledge and experiences and examine their beliefs under new evidence. The nurses do not remain to what they were taught in school, but are “open-minded” in terms of different intervention methods technical skills.


Those who apply critical thinking are independent in different ways, based on evidence and not panic or personal and group biases. The nurse takes into account the views of both the younger and older family members.

Perspicacity into Personal and Social Factors

Those who are using critical thinking and accept the possibility that their personal prejudices, social pressures and habits could affect their judgment greatly. So, they try to actively interpret their prejudices whenever they think and decide.

Humble Cerebration and Deferral Crisis

Humble intellect means to have someone aware of the limits of his own knowledge. So, those who apply critical thinking are willing to admit they do not know something and believe that what we all consider rectum cannot always be true, because new evidence may emerge.

Spiritual Courage

The values and beliefs are not always obtained by rationality, meaning opinions that have been researched and proven that are supported by reasons and information. The courage should be true to their new ground in situations where social penalties for incompatibility are strict. In many cases the nurses who supported an attitude according to which if investigations are proved wrong, they are canceled.

Use of critical thinking to mentally intact individuals question their knowledge and beliefs quickly and thoroughly and cause the knowledge of others so that they are willing to admit and appreciate inconsistencies of both their own beliefs and the beliefs of the others.


The perseverance shown by nurses in exploring effective solutions for patient problems and nursing each determination helps to clarify concepts and to distinguish related issues despite the difficulties and failures. Using critical thinking they resist the temptation to find a quick and simple answer to avoid uncomfortable situations such as confusion and frustration.

Confidence in the Justification

According to critical thinking through well motivated reasoning leads to reliable conclusions. Using critical thinking nurses develop both the inductive and the deductive reasoning. The nurse gaining more experience of mental process and improvement, does not hesitate to disagree and be troubled thereby acting as a role model to colleagues, inspiring them to develop critical thinking.

Interesting Thoughts and Feelings for Research

Nurses need to recognize, examine and inspect or modify the emotions involved with critical thinking. So, if they feel anger, guilt and frustration for some event in their work, they should follow some steps: To restrict the operations for a while to avoid hasty conclusions and impulsive decisions, discuss negative feelings with a trusted, consume some of the energy produced by emotion, for example, doing calisthenics or walking, ponder over the situation and determine whether the emotional response is appropriate. After intense feelings abate, the nurse will be able to proceed objectively to necessary conclusions and to take the necessary decisions.

The internal debate, that has constantly in mind that the use of critical thinking is full of questions. So, a research nurse calculates traditions but does not hesitate to challenge them if you do not confirm their validity and reliability.


In their shifts nurses act effectively without using critical thinking as many decisions are mainly based on habit and have a minimum reflection. Thus, higher critical thinking skills are put into operation, when some new ideas or needs are displayed to take a decision beyond routine. The nursing process is a systematic, rational method of planning and providing specialized nursing ( 13 ). The steps of the nursing process are assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, evaluation. The health care is setting the priorities of the day to apply critical thinking ( 14 ). Each nurse seeks awareness of reasoning as he/she applies the criteria and considerations and as thinking evolves ( 15 ).

Problem Solving

Problem solving helps to acquire knowledge as nurse obtains information explaining the nature of the problem and recommends possible solutions which evaluate and select the application of the best without rejecting them in a possible appeal of the original. Also, it approaches issues when solving problems that are often used is the empirical method, intuition, research process and the scientific method modified ( 16 ).

Experiential Method

This method is mainly used in home care nursing interventions where they cannot function properly because of the tools and equipment that are incomplete ( 17 ).

Intuition is the perception and understanding of concepts without the conscious use of reasoning. As a problem solving approach, as it is considered by many, is a form of guessing and therefore is characterized as an inappropriate basis for nursing decisions. But others see it as important and legitimate aspect of the crisis gained through knowledge and experience. The clinical experience allows the practitioner to recognize items and standards and approach the right conclusions. Many nurses are sensing the evolution of the patient’s condition which helps them to act sooner although the limited information. Despite the fact that the intuitive method of solving problems is recognized as part of nursing practice, it is not recommended for beginners or students because the cognitive level and the clinical experience is incomplete and does not allow a valid decision ( 16 ).

Research Process / Scientifically Modified Method

The research method is a worded, rational and systematic approach to problem solving. Health professionals working in uncontrolled situations need to implement a modified approach of the scientific method of problem solving. With critical thinking being important in all processes of problem solving, the nurse considers all possible solutions and decides on the choice of the most appropriate solution for each case ( 18 ).

The Decision

The decision is the selection of appropriate actions to fulfill the desired objective through critical thinking. Decisions should be taken when several exclusive options are available or when there is a choice of action or not. The nurse when facing multiple needs of patients, should set priorities and decide the order in which they help their patients. They should therefore: a) examine the advantages and disadvantages of each option, b) implement prioritization needs by Maslow, c) assess what actions can be delegated to others, and d) use any framework implementation priorities. Even nurses make decisions about their personal and professional lives. The successive stages of decision making are the Recognition of Objective or Purpose, Definition of criteria, Calculation Criteria, Exploration of Alternative Solutions, Consideration of Alternative Solutions, Design, Implementation, Evaluation result ( 16 ).

The contribution of critical thinking in decision making

Acquiring critical thinking and opinion is a question of practice. Critical thinking is not a phenomenon and we should all try to achieve some level of critical thinking to solve problems and make decisions successfully ( 19 - 21 ).

It is vital that the alteration of growing research or application of the Socratic Method or other technique since nurses revise the evaluation criteria of thinking and apply their own reasoning. So when they have knowledge of their own reasoning-as they apply critical thinking-they can detect syllogistic errors ( 22 – 26 ).


In responsible positions nurses should be especially aware of the climate of thought that is implemented and actively create an environment that stimulates and encourages diversity of opinion and research ideas ( 27 ). The nurses will also be applied to investigate the views of people from different cultures, religions, social and economic levels, family structures and different ages. Managing nurses should encourage colleagues to scrutinize the data prior to draw conclusions and to avoid “group thinking” which tends to vary without thinking of the will of the group. Critical thinking is an essential process for the safe, efficient and skillful nursing practice. The nursing education programs should adopt attitudes that promote critical thinking and mobilize the skills of critical reasoning.


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1.3: Critical Thinking and Clinical Reasoning

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Before learning how to use the nursing process, it is important to understand some basic concepts related to critical thinking and nursing practice. Let’s take a deeper look at how nurses think.

Critical Thinking and Clinical Reasoning

Nurses make decisions while providing patient care by using critical thinking and clinical reasoning. Critical thinking is a broad term used in nursing that includes “reasoning about clinical issues such as teamwork, collaboration, and streamlining workflow.” [1] Using critical thinking means that nurses take extra steps to maintain patient safety and don’t just “follow orders.” It also means the accuracy of patient information is validated and plans for caring for patients are based on their needs, current clinical practice, and research.

“Critical thinkers” possess certain attitudes that foster rational thinking. These attitudes are as follows:

  • Independence of thought: Thinking on your own
  • Fair-mindedness: Treating every viewpoint in an unbiased, unprejudiced way
  • Insight into egocentricity and sociocentricity: Thinking of the greater good and not just thinking of yourself. Knowing when you are thinking of yourself (egocentricity) and when you are thinking or acting for the greater good (sociocentricity)
  • Intellectual humility: Recognizing your intellectual limitations and abilities
  • Nonjudgmental: Using professional ethical standards and not basing your judgments on your own personal or moral standards
  • Integrity: Being honest and demonstrating strong moral principles
  • Perseverance: Persisting in doing something despite it being difficult
  • Confidence: Believing in yourself to complete a task or activity
  • Interest in exploring thoughts and feelings: Wanting to explore different ways of knowing
  • Curiosity: Asking “why” and wanting to know more

Clinical reasoning is defined as, “A complex cognitive process that uses formal and informal thinking strategies to gather and analyze patient information, evaluate the significance of this information, and weigh alternative actions.” To make sound judgments about patient care, nurses must generate alternatives, weigh them against the evidence, and choose the best course of action. The ability to clinically reason develops over time and is based on knowledge and experience. [3]

The ANA’s Standards of Professional Nursing Practice associated with each component of the nursing process are described below.

Assessment is the first step of the nursing process. The American Nurses Association (ANA) “Assessment” Standard of Practice is defined as, “The registered nurse collects pertinent data and information relative to the health care consumer’s health or the situation.”    This includes collecting “pertinent data related to the health and quality of life in a systematic, ongoing manner, with compassion and respect for the wholeness, inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person, including but not limited to, demographics, environmental and occupational exposures, social determinants of health, health disparities, physical, functional, psychosocial, emotional, cognitive, spiritual/transpersonal, sexual, sociocultural, age-related, environmental, and lifestyle/economic assessments.” [1]

A registered nurse uses a systematic method to collect and analyze patient data. Assessment includes physiological data, as well as psychological, sociocultural, spiritual, economic, and lifestyle data. For example, a nurse’s assessment of a hospitalized patient in pain includes the patient’s response to pain, such as the inability to get out of bed, refusal to eat, withdrawal from family members, or anger directed at hospital staff. Nurses assess patients to gather clues, make generalizations, and diagnose human responses to health conditions and life processes. Patient data is considered either subjective or objective, and it can be collected from multiple sources.

The “Diagnosis” Standard of Practice is defined as, “The registered nurse analyzes the assessment data to determine actual or potential diagnoses, problems, and issues.” [13] A nursing diagnosis is the nurse’s clinical judgment about the client's response to actual or potential health conditions or needs. Nursing diagnoses are the bases for the nurse’s care plan and are different than medical diagnoses.

Outcomes Identification

The “Outcomes Identification” Standard of Practice is defined as, “The registered nurse identifies expected outcomes for a plan individualized to the health care consumer or the situation.” The nurse sets measurable and achievable short- and long-term goals and specific outcomes in collaboration with the patient based on their assessment data and nursing diagnoses.

The “Planning” Standard of Practice is defined as, “The registered nurse develops a collaborative plan encompassing strategies to achieve expected outcomes.” [16] Assessment data, diagnoses, and goals are used to select evidence-based nursing interventions customized to each patient’s needs and concerns. Goals, expected outcomes, and nursing interventions are documented in the patient’s nursing care plan so that nurses, as well as other health professionals, have access to it for continuity of care. [17]

Nursing Care Plans

Creating nursing care plans is a part of the “Planning” step of the nursing process. A nursing care plan is a type of documentation that demonstrates the individualized planning and delivery of nursing care for each specific patient using the nursing process. Registered nurses (RNs) create nursing care plans so that the care provided to the patient across shifts is consistent among health care personnel. 


The “Implementation” Standard of Practice is defined as, “The nurse implements the identified plan.” Nursing interventions are implemented or delegated with supervision according to the care plan to assure continuity of care across multiple nurses and health professionals caring for the patient. Interventions are also documented in the patient’s electronic medical record as they are completed.

The “Evaluation” Standard of Practice is defined as, “The registered nurse evaluates progress toward attainment of goals and outcomes.” During evaluation, nurses assess the patient and compare the findings against the initial assessment to determine the effectiveness of the interventions and overall nursing care plan. Both the patient’s status and the effectiveness of the nursing care must be continuously evaluated and modified as needed.

Benefits of Using the Nursing Process

Using the nursing process has many benefits for nurses, patients, and other members of the health care team. The benefits of using the nursing process include the following:

  • Promotes quality patient care
  • Decreases omissions and duplications
  • Provides a guide for all staff involved to provide consistent and responsive care
  • Encourages collaborative management of a patient’s health care problems
  • Improves patient safety
  • Improves patient satisfaction
  • Identifies a patient’s goals and strategies to attain them
  • Increases the likelihood of achieving positive patient outcomes
  • Saves time, energy, and frustration by creating a care plan or path to follow

By using these components of the nursing process as a critical thinking model, nurses plan interventions customized to the patient’s needs, plan outcomes and interventions, and determine whether those actions are effective in meeting the patient’s needs. In the remaining sections of this chapter, we will take an in-depth look at each of these components of the nursing process. Using the nursing process and implementing evidence-based practices are referred to as the “science of nursing.” Let’s review concepts related to the “art of nursing” while providing holistic care in a caring manner using the nursing process.

Holistic Nursing Care

The American Nurses Association (ANA) recently updated the definition of nursing as, “Nursing integrates the art and science of caring and focuses on the protection, promotion, and optimization of health and human functioning; prevention of illness and injury; facilitation of healing; and alleviation of suffering through compassionate presence. Nursing is the diagnosis and treatment of human responses and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, groups, communities, and populations in the recognition of the connection of all humanity.”

The ANA further describes nursing is a learned profession built on a core body of knowledge that integrates both the art and science of nursing. The art of nursing is defined as, “Unconditionally accepting the humanity of others, respecting their need for dignity and worth, while providing compassionate, comforting care.”

Nurses care for individuals holistically, including their emotional, spiritual, psychosocial, cultural, and physical needs. They consider problems, issues, and needs that the person experiences as a part of a family and a community as they use the nursing process. 

Caring and the Nursing Process

The American Nurses Association (ANA) states, “The act of caring is foundational to the practice of nursing.” Successful use of the nursing process requires the development of a care relationship with the patient. A care relationship is a mutual relationship that requires the development of trust between both parties. This trust is often referred to as the development of rapport and underlies the art of nursing. While establishing a caring relationship, the whole person is assessed, including the individual’s beliefs, values, and attitudes, while also acknowledging the vulnerability and dignity of the patient and family. Assessing and caring for the whole person takes into account the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of being a human being.   Caring interventions can be demonstrated in simple gestures such as active listening, making eye contact, touching, and verbal reassurances while also respecting and being sensitive to the care recipient’s cultural beliefs and meanings associated with caring behaviors. 

  • Klenke-Borgmann, L., Cantrell, M. A., & Mariani, B. (2020). Nurse educator’s guide to clinical judgment: A review of conceptualization, measurement, and development. Nursing Education Perspectives, 41 (4), 215-221. ↵
  • Powers, L., Pagel, J., & Herron, E. (2020). Nurse preceptors and new graduate success. American Nurse Journal, 15 (7), 37-39. ↵
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  • “ In the Quiet Zone… ” by C.O.D. Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ↵
  • NCSBN. (n.d.). NCSBN clinical judgment model . ↵
  • American Nurses Association. (2021). Nursing: Scope and standards of practice (4th ed.). American Nurses Association. ↵
  • “ The Nursing Process ” by Kim Ernstmeyer at Chippewa Valley Technical College is licensed under CC BY 4.0 ↵
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  • American Nurses Association. (n.d.). The nursing process. ↵
  • American Nurses Association. (n.d.). The nursing process . ↵
  • American Nurses Association. (2021). Nursing: Scope and standards of practice (3rd ed.). American Nurses Association. ↵
  • American Nurses Association. (n.d.) The nursing process. / ↵
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How to Apply Critical Thinking in Nursing

Young adult African American female nurse or doctor in hospital emergency room is checking paper charts and digital charts in modern digital tablet. Woman is wearing scrubs and glasses.

Harnessing the power of critical thinking can be the key to becoming a successful and competent nurse. 

Developing and refining your critical thinking skills is crucial as you embark on your nursing journey. By doing so, you’ll enhance your ability to provide high-quality care, advance your professional growth, and contribute to the ever-evolving nursing field.

What is critical thinking in nursing?

Critical thinking is an essential cognitive process that enables nurses to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information to make informed decisions. In the context of nursing, it involves observing, interpreting, and responding to patient needs effectively. 

Critical thinking allows nurses to go beyond memorized facts and apply logical reasoning to address patient problems holistically.

As a nurse, you’ll encounter multifaceted healthcare scenarios, each presenting its unique challenges. Critical thinking enables you to approach these situations systematically, evaluate the available data, identify relevant factors, and understand the patient’s condition comprehensively.

By employing critical thinking skills, you can differentiate between urgent and non-urgent issues, prioritize care, anticipate potential complications, and adapt your interventions accordingly. This analytical approach helps minimize errors, promote patient safety, and achieve positive patient outcomes.

Why is critical thinking important in nursing?

Critical thinking serves as the backbone of nursing practice. You’ll encounter various uncertainties, changing conditions, and ethical dilemmas as a nurse. Developing critical thinking abilities empowers you to navigate these challenges confidently and provide optimal patient care.

In nursing, critical thinking is crucial for the following reasons:

  • Enhanced Clinical Judgment: Critical thinking enables assessing complex situations, analyzing available information, and drawing logical conclusions. It enhances your clinical judgment, allowing you to make informed decisions based on the best available evidence and expert consensus.
  • Effective Problem Solving: Nursing involves encountering problems and finding effective solutions. Critical thinking equips you with the tools to identify underlying issues, explore alternative options, and implement interventions that address the root cause of the problem.
  • Patient Advocacy: Critical thinking empowers you to advocate for your patients’ needs. By actively engaging in critical inquiry, you can challenge assumptions, question policies, and promote patient-centered care.
  • Adapting to Changing Environments: Healthcare is constantly evolving, with new research findings, technologies, and treatments emerging regularly. Developing critical thinking skills helps you adapt to these changes, ensuring you stay updated and deliver evidence-based care.

Examples of Critical Thinking in Nursing

Let’s dive into some real-life examples that highlight how critical thinking plays a crucial role in nursing practice:

  • Prioritization: Imagine working in an emergency department where multiple patients arrive simultaneously with varying degrees of severity. Utilizing critical thinking, you can assess each patient’s condition, prioritize care based on the urgency of their needs, and allocate resources effectively.
  • Medication Administration: When administering medication, critical thinking prompts you to cross-check the prescribed dose, assess potential drug interactions or allergies, and evaluate the patient’s response to the medication. This proactive approach ensures patient safety and minimizes medication errors.
  • Ethical Dilemmas: Critical thinking helps you navigate complex ethical dilemmas by analyzing the values at stake, considering legal and ethical principles, and collaborating with the healthcare team to make decisions that align with the patient’s best interests.

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Critical Thinking in Nursing Practice

Chapter 15 Critical Thinking in Nursing Practice Objectives •  Describe characteristics of a critical thinker. •  Discuss the nurse’s responsibility in making clinical decisions. •  Discuss how reflection improves clinical decision making. •  Describe the components of a critical thinking model for clinical decision making. •  Discuss critical thinking skills used in nursing practice. •  Explain the relationship between clinical experience and critical thinking. •  Discuss the critical thinking attitudes used in clinical decision making. •  Explain how professional standards influence a nurse’s clinical decisions. •  Discuss the relationship of the nursing process to critical thinking. Key Terms Clinical decision making, p. 196 Concept map, p. 202 Critical thinking, p. 193 Decision making, p. 195 Diagnostic reasoning, p. 196 Evidence-based knowledge, p. 193 Inference, p. 196 Nursing process, p. 197 Problem solving, p. 195 Reflection, p. 202 Scientific method, p. 195 •  Review Questions •  Case Study with Questions •  Audio Glossary •  Interactive Learning Activities •  Key Term Flashcards •  Content Updates Every day you think critically without realizing it. If it’s hot outside, you take off a sweater. If your DVD doesn’t start, you reposition the disc. If you decide to walk the dogs, you change to a pair of walking shoes. These examples involve critical thinking as you face each day and prepare for all possibilities. As a nurse, you will face many clinical situations involving patients, family members, health care staff, and peers. In each situation it is important to try to see the big picture and think smart. To think smart you have to develop critical thinking skills to face each new experience and problem involving a patient’s care with open-mindedness, creativity, confidence, and continual inquiry. When a patient develops a new set of symptoms, asks you to offer comfort, or requires a procedure, it is important to think critically and make sensible judgments so the patient receives the best nursing care possible. Critical thinking is not a simple step-by-step, linear process that you learn overnight. It is a process acquired only through experience, commitment, and an active curiosity toward learning. Clinical Decisions in Nursing Practice Nurses are responsible for making accurate and appropriate clinical decisions. Clinical decision making separates professional nurses from technical personnel. For example, a professional nurse observes for changes in patients, recognizes potential problems, identifies new problems as they arise, and takes immediate action when a patient’s clinical condition worsens. Technical personnel simply follow direction in completing aspects of care that the professional nurse has identified as necessary. A professional nurse relies on knowledge and experience when deciding if a patient is having complications that call for notification of a health care provider or decides if a teaching plan for a patient is ineffective and needs revision. Benner (1984) describes clinical decision making as judgment that includes critical and reflective thinking and action and application of scientific and practical logic. Most patients have health care problems for which there are no clear textbook solutions. Each patient’s problems are unique, a product of the patient’s physical health, lifestyle, culture, relationship with family and friends, living environment, and experiences. Thus as a nurse you do not always have a clear picture of a patient’s needs and the appropriate actions to take when first meeting a patient. Instead you must learn to question, wonder, and explore different perspectives and interpretations to find a solution that benefits the patient. Because no two patients’ health problems are the same, you always apply critical thinking differently. Observe patients closely, gather information about them, examine ideas and inferences about patient problems, recognize the problems, consider scientific principles relating to the problems, and develop an approach to nursing care. With experience you learn to creatively seek new knowledge, act quickly when events change, and make quality decisions for patients’ well-being. You will find nursing to be rewarding and fulfilling through the clinical decisions you make. Critical Thinking Defined Mr. Jacobs is a 58-year-old patient who had a radical prostatectomy for prostate cancer yesterday. His nurse, Tonya, finds the patient lying supine in bed with arms extended along his sides but tensed. When Tonya checks the patient’s surgical wound and drainage device, she notes that the patient winces when she gently places her hands to palpate around the surgical incision. She asks Mr. Jacobs when he last turned onto his side, and he responds, “Not since last night some time.” Tonya asks Mr. Jacobs if he is having incisional pain, and he nods yes, saying, “It hurts too much to move.” Tonya considers the information she has observed and learned from the patient to determine that he is in pain and has reduced mobility because of it. She decides that she needs to take action to relieve Mr. Jacobs’ pain so she can turn him more frequently and begin to get him out of bed for his recovery. In the case example the nurse observes the clinical situation, asks questions, considers what she knows about postoperative pain and risk for immobility, and takes action. The nurse applies critical thinking, a continuous process characterized by open-mindedness, continual inquiry, and perseverance, combined with a willingness to look at each unique patient situation and determine which identified assumptions are true and relevant ( Heffner and Rudy, 2008 ). Critical thinking involves recognizing that an issue (e.g., patient problem) exists, analyzing information about the issue (e.g., clinical data about a patient), evaluating information (reviewing assumptions and evidence) and making conclusions ( Settersten and Lauver, 2004 ). A critical thinker considers what is important in each clinical situation, imagines and explores alternatives, considers ethical principles, and makes informed decisions about the care of patients. Critical thinking is a way of thinking about a situation that always asks “Why?”, “What am I missing?”, “What do I really know about this patient’s situation?”, and “What are my options?” ( Heffner and Rudy, 2008 ; Paul and Heaslip, 1995 ). Tonya knew that pain was likely going to be a problem because the patient had extensive surgery. Her review of her observations and the patient’s report of pain confirmed her knowledge that pain was a problem. Her options include giving Mr. Jacobs an analgesic and waiting until it takes effect so she is able to reposition and make him more comfortable. Once he has less acute pain, Tonya offers to teach Mr. Jacobs some relaxation exercises. You begin to learn critical thinking early in your practice. For example, as you learn about administering baths and other hygiene measures, take time to read your textbook and the nursing literature about the concept of comfort. What are the criteria for comfort? How do patients from other cultures perceive comfort? What are the many factors that promote comfort? The use of evidence-based knowledge, or knowledge based on research or clinical expertise, makes you an informed critical thinker. Thinking critically and learning about the concept of comfort prepares you to better anticipate your patients’ needs, identify comfort problems more quickly, and offer appropriate care. Critical thinking requires cognitive skills and the habit of asking questions, remaining well informed, being honest in facing personal biases, and always being willing to reconsider and think clearly about issues ( Facione, 1990 ). When core critical thinking skills are applied to nursing, they show the complex nature of clinical decision making ( Table 15-1 ). Being able to apply all of these skills takes practice. You also need to have a sound knowledge base and thoughtfully consider what you learn when caring for patients. TABLE 15-1 Critical Thinking Skills SKILL NURSING PRACTICE APPLICATIONS Interpretation Be orderly in data collection. Look for patterns to categorize data (e.g., nursing diagnoses [see Chapter 17 ]). Clarify any data you are uncertain about. Analysis Be open-minded as you look at information about a patient. Do not make careless assumptions. Do the data reveal what you believe is true, or are there other options? Inference Look at the meaning and significance of findings. Are there relationships between findings? Do the data about the patient help you see that a problem exists? Evaluation Look at all situations objectively. Use criteria (e.g., expected outcomes, pain characteristics, learning objectives) to determine results of nursing actions. Reflect on your own behavior. Explanation Support your findings and conclusions. Use knowledge and experience to choose strategies to use in the care of patients. Self-regulation Reflect on your experiences. Identify the ways you can improve your own performance. What will make you believe that you have been successful? Modified from Facione P: Critical thinking: a statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction. The Delphi report: research findings and recommendations prepared for the American Philosophical Association, ERIC Doc No. ED 315, Washington, DC, 1990, ERIC. Nurses who apply critical thinking in their work are able to see the big picture from all possible perspectives. They focus clearly on options for solving problems and making decisions rather than quickly and carelessly forming quick solutions ( Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor, 1994 ). Nurses who work in crisis situations such as the emergency department often act quickly when patient problems develop. However, even these nurses exercise discipline in decision making to avoid premature and inappropriate decisions. Learning to think critically helps you care for patients as their advocate, or supporter, and make better-informed choices about their care. Facione and Facione (1996) identified concepts for thinking critically ( Table 15-2 ). Critical thinking is more than just problem solving. It is a continuous attempt to improve how to apply yourself when faced with problems in patient care. TABLE 15-2 Concepts for a Critical Thinker CONCEPT CRITICAL THINKING BEHAVIOR Truth seeking Seek the true meaning of a situation. Be courageous, honest, and objective about asking questions. Open-mindedness Be tolerant of different views; be sensitive to the possibility of your own prejudices; respect the right of others to have different opinions. Analyticity Analyze potentially problematic situations; anticipate possible results or consequences; value reason; use evidence-based knowledge. Systematicity Be organized, focused; work hard in any inquiry. Self-confidence Trust in your own reasoning processes. Inquisitiveness Be eager to acquire knowledge and learn explanations even when applications of the knowledge are not immediately clear. Value learning for learning’s sake. Maturity Multiple solutions are acceptable. Reflect on your own judgments; have cognitive maturity. Modified from Facione N, Facione P: Externalizing the critical thinking in knowledge development and clinical judgment, Nurs Outlook 44(3):129, 1996. Thinking and Learning Learning is a lifelong process. Your intellectual and emotional growth involves learning new knowledge and refining your ability to think, problem solve, and make judgments. To learn, you have to be flexible and always open to new information. The science of nursing is growing rapidly, and there will always be new information for you to apply in practice. As you have more clinical experiences and apply the knowledge you learn, you will become better at forming assumptions, presenting ideas, and making valid conclusions. When you care for a patient, always think ahead and ask these questions: What is the patient’s status now? How might it change and why? Which physiological and emotional responses do I anticipate? What do I know to improve the patient’s condition? In which way will specific therapies affect the patient? What should be my first action? Do not let your thinking become routine or standardized. Instead, learn to look beyond the obvious in any clinical situation, explore the patient’s unique responses to health alterations, and recognize which actions are needed to benefit the patient. With experience you are able to recognize patterns of behavior, see commonalities in signs and symptoms, and anticipate reactions to therapies. Thinking about these experiences allows you to better anticipate each new patient’s needs and recognize problems when they develop. Levels of Critical Thinking in Nursing Your ability to think critically grows as you gain new knowledge in nursing practice. Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor (1994) developed a critical thinking model ( Fig. 15-1 ) that includes three levels: basic, complex, and commitment. An expert nurse thinks critically almost automatically. As a beginning student you make a more conscious effort to apply critical thinking because initially you are more task oriented and trying to learn how to organize nursing care activities. At first you apply the critical thinking model at the basic level. As you advance in practice, you adopt complex critical thinking and commitment. FIG. 15-1 Critical thinking model for nursing judgment. (Redrawn from Kataoka-Yahiro M, Saylor C: A critical thinking model for nursing judgment, J Nurs Educ 33(8):351, 1994. Modified from Glaser E: An experiment in the development of critical thinking, New York, 1941, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University; Miller M, Malcolm N: Critical thinking in the nursing curriculum, Nurs Health Care 11:67, 1990; Paul RW: The art of redesigning instruction. In Willsen J, Blinker AJA, editors: Critical thinking: how to prepare students for a rapidly changing world, Santa Rosa, Calif, 1993, Foundation for Critical Thinking; and Perry W: Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: a scheme , New York, 1979, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.) Basic Critical Thinking At the basic level of critical thinking a learner trusts that experts have the right answers for every problem. Thinking is concrete and based on a set of rules or principles. For example, as a nursing student you use a hospital procedure manual to confirm how to insert a Foley catheter. You likely follow the procedure step by step without adjusting it to meet a patient’s unique needs (e.g., positioning to minimize the patient’s pain or mobility restrictions). You do not have enough experience to anticipate how to individualize the procedure. At this level answers to complex problems are either right or wrong (e.g., when no urine drains from the catheter, the catheter tip must not be in the bladder), and one right answer usually exists for each problem. Basic critical thinking is an early step in developing reasoning ( Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor, 1994 ). A basic critical thinker learns to accept the diverse opinions and values of experts (e.g., instructors and staff nurse role models). However, inexperience, weak competencies, and inflexible attitudes can restrict a person’s ability to move to the next level of critical thinking. Complex Critical Thinking Complex critical thinkers begin to separate themselves from experts. They analyze and examine choices more independently. The person’s thinking abilities and initiative to look beyond expert opinion begin to change. A nurse learns that alternative and perhaps conflicting solutions exist. Consider the case of Mr. Rosen, a 36-year-old man who had hip surgery. The patient is having pain but is refusing his ordered analgesic. His health care provider is concerned that the patient will not progress as planned, delaying rehabilitation. While discussing the importance of rehabilitation with Mr. Rosen, the nurse, Edwin, realizes the patient’s reason for not taking pain medication. Edwin learns that the patient practices meditation at home. As a complex critical thinker, Edwin recognizes that Mr. Rosen has options for pain relief. Edwin decides to discuss meditation and other nonpharmacological interventions with the patient as pain control options and how, when combined with analgesics, these interventions can potentially enhance pain relief. In complex critical thinking each solution has benefits and risks that you weigh before making a final decision. There are options. Thinking becomes more creative and innovative. The complex critical thinker is willing to consider different options from routine procedures when complex situations develop. You learn a variety of different approaches for the same therapy. Commitment The third level of critical thinking is commitment ( Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor, 1994 ). At this level a person anticipates when to make choices without assistance from others and accepts accountability for decisions made. As a nurse you do more than just consider the complex alternatives that a problem poses. At the commitment level you choose an action or belief based on the available alternatives and support it. Sometimes an action is to not act or to delay an action until a later time. You choose to delay as a result of your experience and knowledge. Because you take accountability for the decision, you consider the results of the decision and determine whether it was appropriate. Critical Thinking Competencies Kataoka-Yahiro and Saylor (1994) describe critical thinking competencies as the cognitive processes a nurse uses to make judgments about the clinical care of patients. These include general critical thinking, specific critical thinking in clinical situations, and specific critical thinking in nursing. General critical thinking processes are not unique to nursing. They include the scientific method, problem solving, and decision making. Specific critical thinking competencies in clinical health care situations include diagnostic reasoning, clinical inference, and clinical decision making. The specific critical thinking competency in nursing involves use of the nursing process. Each of the competencies is discussed in the following paragraphs. General Critical Thinking Scientific Method The scientific method is a way to solve problems using reasoning. It is a systematic, ordered approach to gathering data and solving problems used by nurses, physicians, and a variety of other health care professionals. This approach looks for the truth or verifies that a set of facts agrees with reality. Nurse researchers use the scientific method when testing research questions in nursing practice situations (see Chapter 5 ). The scientific method has five steps: 1  Identifying the problem 2  Collecting data 3  Formulating a question or hypothesis 4  Testing the question or hypothesis 5  Evaluating results of the test or study Consider the following example of the scientific method in nursing practice. A nurse caring for patients who receive large doses of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer sees a pattern of patients developing severe inflammation in the mouth (mucositis) (identifies problem). The nurse reads research articles (collects data) about mucositis and learns that there is evidence to show that having patients keep ice in their mouths (cryotherapy) during the chemotherapy infusion reduces severity of mucositis after treatment. He or she asks (forms question), “Do patients with ovarian cancer who receive chemotherapy have less severe mucositis when given cryotherapy versus standard mouth rinse in the oral cavity?” The nurse then collaborates with colleagues to develop a nursing protocol for using ice with certain chemotherapy infusions. The nurses on the oncology unit collect information that allows them to compare the incidence and severity of mucositis for a group of patients who use cryotherapy versus those who use standard-practice mouth rinse (tests the question). They analyze the results of their project and find that the use of cryotherapy reduced the frequency and severity of mucositis in their patients (evaluating the results). They decide to continue the protocol for all patients with ovarian cancer. Problem Solving You face problems every day such as a computer program that doesn’t function properly or a close friend who has lost a favorite pet. When a problem arises, you obtain information and use it, plus what you already know, to find a solution. Patients routinely present problems in practice. For example, a home care nurse learns that a patient has difficulty taking her medications regularly. The patient is unable to describe what medications she has taken for the last 3 days. The medication bottles are labeled and filled. The nurse has to solve the problem of why the patient is not adhering to or following her medication schedule. The nurse knows that the patient was discharged from the hospital and had five medications ordered. The patient tells the nurse that she also takes two over-the-counter medications regularly. When the nurse asks her to show the medications that she takes in the morning, the nurse notices that she has difficulty reading the medication labels. The patient is able to describe the medications that she is to take but is uncertain about the times of administration. The nurse recommends having the patient’s pharmacy relabel the medications in larger lettering. In addition, the nurse shows the patient examples of pill organizers that will help her sort her medications by time of day for a period of 7 days. Effective problem solving also involves evaluating the solution over time to make sure that it is effective. It becomes necessary to try different options if a problem recurs. From the previous example, during a follow-up visit the nurse finds that the patient has organized her medications correctly and is able to read the labels without difficulty. The nurse obtained information that correctly clarified the cause of the patient’s problem and tested a solution that proved successful. Having solved a problem in one situation adds to a nurse’s experience in practice, and this allows the nurse to apply that knowledge in future patient situations. Decision Making When you face a problem or situation and need to choose a course of action from several options, you are making a decision. Decision making is a product of critical thinking that focuses on problem resolution. Following a set of criteria helps to make a thorough and thoughtful decision. The criteria may be personal; based on an organizational policy; or, frequently in the case of nursing, a professional standard. For example, decision making occurs when a person decides on the choice of a health care provider. To make a decision, an individual has to recognize and define the problem or situation (need for a certain type of health care provider to provide medical care) and assess all options (consider recommended health care providers or choose one whose office is close to home). The person has to weigh each option against a set of personal criteria (experience, friendliness, and reputation), test possible options (talk directly with the different health care providers), consider the consequences of the decision (examine pros and cons of selecting one health care provider over another), and make a final decision. Although the set of criteria follows a sequence of steps, decision making involves moving back and forth when considering all criteria. It leads to informed conclusions that are supported by evidence and reason. Examples of decision making in the clinical area include determining which patient care priority requires the first response, choosing a type of dressing for a patient with a surgical wound, or selecting the best teaching approach for a family caregiver who will assist a patient who is returning home after a stroke. Specific Critical Thinking Diagnostic Reasoning and Inference Once you receive information about a patient in a clinical situation, diagnostic reasoning begins. It is the analytical process for determining a patient’s health problems ( Harjai and Tiwari, 2009 ). Accurate recognition of a patient’s problems is necessary before you decide on solutions and implement action. It requires you to assign meaning to the behaviors and physical signs and symptoms presented by a patient. Diagnostic reasoning begins when you interact with a patient or make physical or behavioral observations. An expert nurse sees the context of a patient situation (e.g., a patient who is feeling light-headed with blurred vision and who has a history of diabetes is possibly experiencing a problem with blood glucose levels), observes patterns and themes (e.g., symptoms that include weakness, hunger, and visual disturbances suggest hypoglycemia), and makes decisions quickly (e.g., offers a food source containing glucose). The information a nurse collects and analyzes leads to a diagnosis of a patient’s condition. Nurses do not make medical diagnoses, but they do assess and monitor patients closely and compare the patients’ signs and symptoms with those that are common to a medical diagnosis. This type of diagnostic reasoning helps health care providers pinpoint the nature of a problem more quickly and select proper therapies. Part of diagnostic reasoning is clinical inference, the process of drawing conclusions from related pieces of evidence and previous experience with the evidence. An inference involves forming patterns of information from data before making a diagnosis. Seeing that a patient has lost appetite and experienced weight loss over the last month, the nurse infers that there is a nutritional problem. An example of diagnostic reasoning is forming a nursing diagnosis such as imbalanced nutrition: less than body requirements (see Chapter 17 ). In diagnostic reasoning use patient data that you gather or collect to logically recognize the problem. For example, after turning a patient you see an area of redness on the right hip. You palpate the area and note that it is warm to the touch and the patient complains of tenderness. You press over the area with your finger; after you release pressure, the area does not blanch or turn white. After thinking about what you know about normal skin integrity and the effects of pressure, you form the diagnostic conclusion that the patient has a pressure ulcer. As a student, confirm your judgments with experienced nurses. At times you possibly will be wrong, but consulting with nurse experts gives you feedback to build on future clinical situations. Often you cannot make a precise diagnosis during your first meeting with a patient. Sometimes you sense that a problem exists but do not have enough data to make a specific diagnosis. Some patients’ physical conditions limit their ability to tell you about symptoms. Some choose to not share sensitive and important information during your initial assessment. Some patients’ behaviors and physical responses become observable only under conditions not present during your initial assessment. When uncertain of a diagnosis, continue data collection. You have to critically analyze changing clinical situations until you are able to determine the patient’s unique situation. Diagnostic reasoning is a continuous behavior in nursing practice. Any diagnostic conclusions that you make will help the health care provider identify the nature of a problem more quickly and select appropriate medical therapies. Clinical Decision Making As in the case of general decision making, clinical decision making is a problem-solving activity that focuses on defining a problem and selecting an appropriate action. In clinical decision making a nurse identifies a patient’s problem and selects a nursing intervention. When you approach a clinical problem such as a patient who is less mobile and develops an area of redness over the hip, you make a decision that identifies the problem (impaired skin integrity in the form of a pressure ulcer) and choose the best nursing interventions (skin care and a turning schedule). Nurses make clinical decisions all the time to improve a patient’s health or maintain wellness. This means reducing the severity of the problem or resolving the problem completely. Clinical decision making requires careful reasoning (i.e., choosing the options for the best patient outcomes on the basis of the patient’s condition and the priority of the problem). Improve your clinical decision making by knowing your patients. Nurse researchers found that expert nurses develop a level of knowing that leads to pattern recognition of patient symptoms and responses ( White, 2003 ). For example, an expert nurse who has worked on a general surgery unit for many years is more likely able to detect signs of internal hemorrhage (e.g., fall in blood pressure, rapid pulse, change in consciousness) than a new nurse. Over time a combination of experience, time spent in a specific clinical area, and the quality of relationships formed with patients allow expert nurses to know clinical situations and quickly anticipate and select the right course of action. Spending more time during initial patient assessments to observe patient behavior and measure physical findings is a way to improve knowledge of your patients. In addition, consistently assessing and monitoring patients as problems occur help you to see how clinical changes develop over time. The selection of nursing therapies is built on both clinical knowledge and specific patient data, including: •  The identified status and situation you assessed about the patient, including data collected by actively listening to the patient regarding his or her health care needs. •  Knowledge about the clinical variables (e.g., age, seriousness of the problem, pathology of the problem, patient’s preexisting disease conditions) involved in the situation, and how the variables are linked together. •  A judgment about the likely course of events and outcome of the diagnosed problem, considering any health risks the patient has; includes knowledge about usual patterns of any diagnosed problem or prognosis. •  Any additional relevant data about requirements in the patient’s daily living, functional capacity, and social resources. •  Knowledge about the nursing therapy options available and the way in which specific interventions will predictably affect the patient’s situation.

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Week 6: Clinical Judgment Part A

Unit Learning Outcomes

At the end of this chapter, the learner will:

1. Compare and contrast three approaches to problem solving.

2. Describe models of clinical judgment for critical thinking and decision-making judgments.

3. Discuss clinical judgment and decision-making necessary to provide quality care.

Overview of this Chapter

This chapter will introduce the concept of clinical judgement, a vital  process where nurses make decisions using their knowledge, clinical  reasoning and critical thinking.  It is important to understand concepts related to clinical judgement(CJ) in nursing practice. This chapter is the part A of this concept and will include concepts related to clinical judgement, models of CJ and how important it is to provide safe nursing care to patients.

Nurses make decisions while providing patient care by using critical thinking  and clinical reasoning . Let’s review what is critical thinking, clinical reasoning and clinical judgement.

Critical thinking is a broad term used in nursing that includes “reasoning about clinical issues such as teamwork, collaboration, and streamlining workflow.”[1] Using critical thinking means that nurses take extra steps to maintain patient safety and don’t just “follow orders.” It also means the accuracy of patient information is validated and plans for caring for patients are based on their needs, current clinical practice, and research. “Critical thinkers” possess certain attitudes that foster rational thinking. These attitudes are as follows:

  • Independence of thought:  Thinking on your own
  • Fair-mindedness:  Treating every viewpoint in an unbiased, unprejudiced way
  • Insight into egocentricity and sociocentricity:  Thinking of the greater good and not just thinking of yourself. Knowing when you are thinking of yourself (egocentricity) and when you are thinking or acting for the greater good (sociocentricity)
  • Intellectual humility:  Recognizing your intellectual limitations and abilities
  • Nonjudgmental:  Using professional ethical standards and not basing your judgments on your own personal or moral standards
  • Integrity:  Being honest and demonstrating strong moral principles
  • Perseverance:  Persisting in doing something despite it being difficult
  • Confidence:  Believing in yourself to complete a task or activity
  • Interest in exploring thoughts and feelings:  Wanting to explore different ways of knowing
  • Curiosity:  Asking “why” and wanting to know more

Clinical judgment is the result of critical thinking and clinical reasoning using inductive and deductive reasoning. Clinical judgment is defined by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) as, “The observed outcome of critical thinking and decision-making. It uses nursing knowledge to observe and assess presenting situations, identify a prioritized patient concern, and generate the best possible evidence-based solutions in order to deliver safe patient care.”  The NCSBN administers the national licensure exam (NCLEX) that measures nursing clinical judgment and decision-making ability of prospective entry-level nurses to assure safe and competent nursing care by licensed nurses.

Exercises: Pre-class:

Watch the video prior to class and be ready to discuss in the class. See the task below the video .

In-class discussion:

 Give an example of how you have used critical thinking, decision making & clinical reasoning in everyday life.  

I. Clinical Judgment and Nursing

When collecting subjective and objective data, you need to consider clinical judgment. In nursing, the purpose of health assessment is to facilitate  clinical judgment , which is defined as:

  • A determination about a client’s health and illness status.
  • Their health concerns and needs.
  • The capacity to engage in their own care. AND
  • The decision to intervene/act or not – and if action is required, what action (Tanner, 2006).

The nursing process is the foundation of clinical judgment. However, clinical judgment is more comprehensive, action-oriented, and guided by the philosophy of client safety. Thus, it is important to learn when to act to prevent  clinical   deterioration , a worsening clinical state related to physiological decompensation (Padilla & Mayo, 2017).

To facilitate clinical judgment, you must determine if the collected data represent normal findings or abnormal finding. When findings are abnormal, you must act on these cues as they signal a potential concern and require action. Failing to recognize abnormal findings and act on these cues can lead to negative consequences including sub-optimal health and wellness – and more importantly,  clinical   deterioration . Some abnormal findings are considered critical finding that place the client at further risk if the nurse does not act immediately.

The process leading to clinical judgment is described as  clinical   reasoning . This process involves:

  • Thoughtfully considering all client data as a whole, whether each piece of information is relevant or irrelevant, and how each piece of information is related or not related.
  • Recognizing and analyzing  cues. Is the information collected a normal, abnormal, or critical finding? Can the information be clustered to inform your clinical judgment?
  • Interpreting problems. What is the priority problem and what are the factors causing it? What else do you need to assess to validate or invalidate your interpretation? What other information do you need to collect to make an accurate clinical judgment?

Photo showing person looking at camera through a magnifying glass

The clinical reasoning process is encompassed by  critical thinking . This means that when engaging in the process of clinical reasoning, you should systematically analyze your own thinking so that the outcomes are clear, rational, creative, and objective with limited risk of judgment and error.

Clinical Judgement 

A client tells you “I have a headache.” As the nurse, you immediately recognize the cue: headache. However, you do not have sufficient information to analyze this cue and identify the significance. Thus, you may ask a series of subjective questions such as “When did the headache start? What were you doing when it started? Have you ever had this type of headache before?” The client’s response will provide you detailed information to facilitate your critical thinking and the process of hypothesizing what is going on, and thereby helping you determine what actions to take.

Clinical judgement is facilitated by cognitive steps that help you determine when and how to act to prevent clinical deterioration; see  Table 6.1 . Like the nursing process, these steps should be performed in an iterative manner as per the client situation and your clinical reasoning process.

Table 6.1 : Clinical judgment steps (developed based on NCSBN, 2020)

Exercises:  Check Your Understanding

Discussion: Watch the video below and Discuss

 Video: NCSBN (National Council of State Boards of Nursing) : Clinical Judgment -The Next Generation NCLEX (NGN) – Right Decisions Come from Right Questions.

Discuss relevance of Clinical Judgment in nursing practice.

II. Priorities of Care

Why is clinical judgment important? How does it guide the provision of care?

Clinical judgment is important to ensure the nurse’s actions are based on the client’s most important needs. Clients often have several needs, and some are more important than others. As such, nurses need to assess and evaluate the  priorities   of care:  what actions are most important to take first, and then what actions can follow. Typically, priority actions are those that prevent clinical deterioration and death.

Exercises: CURE Hierarchy

  • The CURE hierarchy has been introduced to help novice nurses better understand how to manage competing patient needs. The CURE hierarchy uses the acronym “CURE” to help guide prioritization based on identifying the differences among C ritical needs,  U rgent needs,  R outine needs, and  E xtras.

You are the nurse caring for the patients in the following table.  For each patient, indicate if this is a “critical,” “urgent,” “routine,” or “extra” need.

III. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Priorities of care can be determined using several frameworks such as  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  For example, at the most basic level, life requires an open airway to breathe, the physiological process of breathing, and the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body. Airway, breathing, and circulation are the ABCs, which you might have learned if you have taken a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) course.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was developed to consider  basic human needs  and motivations of healthy individuals (Bouzenita & Wood Boulanouar, 2016; Francis & Kritsonsis, 2006; Gambrel & Cianci, 2003). Although not well known, Maslow’s work was closely influenced by the Blackfoot tribe in Canada (James & Lunday, 2014). One version includes  five  levels of needs: those related to  physiological, safety, love, esteem,  and  self-actualization  (Maslow, 1943), which can help prioritize care in nursing.  Figure 6 .2  presents one adapted version of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Figure 6.2 : Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see attribution statement at bottom of page)

Drawing upon this framework, a nurse can use health assessments to explore five levels of needs:

  • Are these basic physiological needs being met? Is the client’s breathing and circulation supported?
  •  Does the client feel safe and secure in general in life? Does the client feel safe and secure in the healthcare environment? Is the bed lowered to the lowest position when you finish your assessment? Is the call bell in reach?
  • Does the client feel love and belongingness in general in their relationships? More specifically, does the client feel cared for by nurses and other healthcare providers?
  • Does the client feel respected and valued in general by others? Does the client feel respected and valued within the healthcare environment?
  • What is important to the client in terms of what they want to achieve in life in general? What are the client’s goals that they may have for themselves in their own health and healing journey? Does the client feel satisfied, confident, and accomplished?

You can use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a guide, but it is important to be aware of the  critiques  and possible limitations in its application. See  Video 6.1  of a conversation between Dr. Lisa Seto Nielsen and Mahidhar Pemasani.

Video 6.1 : A discussion about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy  are related to it being ethnocentric, based on individualistic societies, and not necessarily taking into account diversity in culture, gender, and age (Bouzenita & Wood Boulanouar, 2016; Francis & Kritsonsis, 2006; Gambrel & Cianci, 2003). It should not be arbitrarily applied to all healthcare encounters. Although you may initially focus on physiological needs to ensure the client is stable, the client may have different priorities that are more important to them. By drawing upon Indigenous knowledge, it is vital to recognize the role of community and advocacy in reaching self actualization at every level (Bennett & Shangreaux, 2005). This is particularly important in the context of systemic racism and oppression and the existing disparities among racialized populations including Black communities and Indigenous People.

IV. Levels of Priority of Care

Because of the importance of recognizing clinical deterioration in a client, a nurse must always be attuned to the set of physiological needs that are important to maintain life and prevent death. These priorities of care are related to the ABCs – airway, breathing, and circulation – introduced above. These priorities of care are often categorized as first, second, or third level, with the first level taking a priority (see  Table 6.2 ).

Table 6.2 : Priorities of care

With regard to levels of care, it is essential to consider what is  most important to the client . You should treat the client as the expert in their own life – and also as the expert in decisions about their own healthcare, if they choose. Although a client may have plummeting blood pressure, you need to consider tailoring the intervening action to their wishes. Some clients may not wish for intervention in a life-threatening circumstance. Therefore, you always need to be open to the client’s wishes, but also consider whether they are able to weigh the consequences of their decision (i.e., are they competent to consent?).

Urgent Priorities of Care: Mental Health 

In practice, mental health is typically not categorized as a first- or second-level priority of care unless the client is showing signs of clinical deterioration based on the examples noted in  Table 6.3 . In some situations, mental health may be positioned as a third-level priority of care, for example when a client is experiencing anxiety, depression, grief, but shows no signs of suicidal ideation. These symptoms should be addressed, but according to this framework, they are considered less urgent compared to first- and second-level priorities of care. However, sometimes, you should think differently about how  mental health   is a priority of care .

In some situations,  mental health may take precedence.  For example, a client who has attempted suicide or has just overdosed will probably have other physical symptoms as a result and therefore require urgent intervention and constant observation as per  Table 6.3 . However, the descriptions of the priorities of care presented in the table do not account for a client who has voiced a specific plan for suicide and has identified when and how. This client is at very high risk and requires urgent intervention regardless of what may be viewed as their physical health state or history. The description of priorities of care listed above does not account for this except as a third-level priority – but a client with suicide ideation or has voiced wanting to hurt others requires urgent action to protect their own wellbeing and others and the possibility of clinical deterioration as a result of their actions.

V. Intervention Types

As illustrated by the text box above, you will need to use your own judgement to determine how to act when a cue presents itself and how to categorize these interventions. This could involve four general  types of interventions  that you need to be aware of (see  Table 6.3 ) including  effective, ineffective, unrelated,  and  contraindicated.  These types of interventions will become more clear as you begin to learn about normal, abnormal, and critical findings for various body systems, and how interventions and actions will affect these findings and the client.

Table 6.3:  Types of interventions

Exercises: In-Class


Sam is a novice nurse who is reporting to work for his 0600 shift on the medical telemetry/progressive care floor. He is waiting to receive handoff report from the night shift nurse for his assigned patients. The information that he has received thus far regarding his patient assignment includes the following:

  • Room 501:  64-year-old patient admitted last night with heart failure exacerbation. Patient received furosemide 80mg IV push at 2000 with 1600 mL urine output. He is receiving oxygen via nasal cannula at 2L/minute. According to the night shift aide, he has been resting comfortably overnight.
  • Room 507:  74-year-old patient admitted yesterday for possible cardioversion due to new onset of atrial fibrillation with rapid ventricular response. Is scheduled for transesophageal echocardiogram and possible cardioversion at 1000.
  • Room 512:  82-year-old patient who is scheduled for coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery today at 0700 and is receiving an insulin infusion.
  • Room 536:  72-year-old patient who had a negative heart catheterization yesterday but experienced a groin bleed; plans for discharge this morning.

Based on the limited information Sam has thus far, he begins to prioritize his activities for the morning. With what is known thus far regarding his patient assignment, whom might Sam plan to see first and why? What principles of prioritization might be applied?

  Clinical Judgment Review:  Think, Pair, Share

Read the case scenario and complete the activity below.

Case Scenario

Client admitted to orthopedic unit following an open reduction internal fixation of right lower tibia and fibula. Client was brought to the emergency department by family after falling on the stairs at home. Client reports pain currently 4 out of 10 and tolerable. Right lower leg in cast, elevated on pillows. Toes warm, capillary refill < 3 seconds, client denies numbness or tingling. Client reminded of non-weight bearing status on the right leg. Reviewed prescriptions and expectations for hospital stay. Client asks, “Why do I need insulin? I don’t have diabetes. The last time I saw my doctor, I was just told to eat less sweets and try to walk more often.”


Pair with another student and complete the following activity on a 3×5 card.

Share your answers with the class.

Lab values are numbers (example: 2.5, 80, etc.)

  • List three lab values that indicates your patient’s condition is improving
  • List three lab values that indicates your patient’s condition is worsening
  • List a priority nursing intervention based on one of these lab values

VI. Reflections

Prepare for the librarian visit.

  • Have few EBP articles ready to discuss with the librarian
  • Choose an EBP article for the EBP assignment

Key Takeaways

Type your key takeaways here.

Assignment: Review Blackboard for details

  • MC Library Tutorial APA Format and Quiz (90%) 2.5 points.
  • Library Tutorial- Academic Integrity & Avoiding Plagiarism Quiz (90%) 2.5 points.

VII. Recommended Resources


Getting Ready for the Next-Generation NCLEX ® (NGN): How to Shift from the Nursing Process to Clinical Judgment in Nursing:

References and Attributes

  • Klenke-Borgmann, L., Cantrell, M. A., & Mariani, B. (2020). Nurse educator’s guide to clinical judgment: A review of conceptualization, measurement, and development. Nursing Education Perspectives, 41(4), 215-221.
  • Dickison, P., Haerling, K., & Lasater, K. (2019). Integrating the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Clinical Judgment Model into nursing educational frameworks.  Journal of Nursing Education ,  58 (2), 72-78.
  • NCSBN (2020, Spring). Next Generation NCLEX news .
  • Padilla, R., & Mayo, A. (2017). Clinical deterioration: A concept analysis. Journal of Clinical Nursing ,  27 , 1360-1368.
  • Tanner, C. (2006). Thinking like a nurse: A research-based model of clinical judgment in nursing. Journal of Nursing Education ,  45 (6), 204-211.
  • Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review ,  50 (4), 370-396.  https://doi .org/ 10.1037/h0054346
  • Bennett, M., & Shangreaux, C. (2005). Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy Theory. First Peoples Child & Family Review: a Journal of Innovation and Best Practices in Aboriginal Child Welfare Administration, Research, Policy & Practice ,  2 (1)89-116.
  • Bouzenita, A. I. & Wood Boulanouar, A. (2016). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: An Islamic critique. Intellectual Discourse ,  24 (1), 59-81.
  • Francis, N.H. & Kritsonis, W.A. (2006). A brief analysis of Abraham Maslow’s original writing of self-actualizing people: A study of psychological health. Doctoral Forum: National Journal of Publishing and Mentoring Doctoral Student Research , 3(1), 1-7. 
  • Critical Thinking and Clinical Reasoning:
  • Open Resources for Nursing (Open RN) Nursing Management and Professional Concepts   by Chippewa Valley Technical College 

The Novice Nurse's Guide to Professional Nursing Practice Copyright © by Kunjamma George and rbertiz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Importance of Critical Thinking in Nursing

Nurse using critical thinking at work

An American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) survey found that a majority of nurse practitioners saw three or more patients per hour. Nurse practitioners see patients of all ages with a broad spectrum of potential ailments. Critical thinking skills in nursing improve patient outcomes by enabling evidence-based decision-making. 

Nurse practitioners gather considerable amounts of patient data through evaluations, tests and conversations. Each patient’s information can be interpreted and analyzed to determine the best courses of action for their health. A growing emphasis on critical thinking in nursing stems from the increasing importance of nurse practitioners in primary care.

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Growing need for critical thinking in nursing.

There is a significant shortage of primary care services throughout the United States. GoodRx identified 80% of counties as “health care deserts” or locations without easy access to necessary services. This data includes the following categories relevant to family nurse practitioners:

  • 9% of counties lack enough primary care providers to serve the local population
  • Residents in 20% of counties are at least 30 minutes away from hospitals
  • Residents in 45% of counties are at least 20 minutes away from community health centers

“Health care deserts” are worsening because of a shortage of primary care physicians. The Association of American Medical Colleges ( AAMC ) estimates up to 48,000 more primary care providers are needed to meet patient care needs by 2034. This shortfall translates to a lack of preventive care and increased reliance on emergency care facilities.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ( BLS ) projects a 52% growth in nurse practitioner roles by 2030. This growth is fueled not only by “health care deserts” but an aging population and public health threats like COVID-19. Critical thinking by nurse practitioners can overcome these challenges even with limited resources and stressful situations.

The Critical Thinking Process

The first step in incorporating critical thinking into patient care is understanding the critical thinking process. The National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission ( NLNAC ) defines critical thinking as:

“the deliberate nonlinear process of collecting, interpreting, analyzing, drawing conclusions about, presenting, and evaluating information that is both factually and belief based.”

Critical thinking in nursing does not move in a straight line because each patient is unique. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis for patients because there isn’t a single type of patient. Nurse practitioners can apply the following steps in the Clinical Reasoning Cycle as they evaluate patient care decisions.

Consider the Situation

First impressions of new patients can distract from effective evaluations. Personal experiences and assumptions may lead to hasty conclusions about patient needs. The first step to critical thinking in nursing involves a dispassionate consideration of the facts.

Nurse practitioners often have the basic facts about their patients’ conditions before stepping into exam rooms. A simple repetition of the patient’s age and reported illness counters assumptions that can negatively impact patient care.

Collect Information

Critical thinking requires the synthesis of existing and new information for effective analysis. Nurse practitioners can pull useful details from patient charts and histories when they are available. An evaluation of visual appearance, speech, blood pressure and other metrics builds on this previous work.

Skilled practitioners automatically apply their knowledge of physiology, pharmacology and other areas during the collection process. They also keep best practices, cultural competence and ethics in mind while working with patients. This recall makes it easier to process information during diagnosis.

Process Information

There is a multi-step process for turning raw information into useful insights for patient care. Nurse practitioners effectively process patient data by:

  • Analyzing information within the context of normal and abnormal ranges
  • Separating relevant and irrelevant data while finding information gaps
  • Focus on relationships between symptoms and cues
  • Deduce potential causes of health problems
  • Compare similar situations between current and past patients
  • Predict potential outcomes and complications from treatment

Nurse practitioners are ready to diagnose patient conditions following this process. Depending on symptoms, they’ll have considered and eliminated multiple diagnoses based on careful consideration of the facts. This step also takes into consideration risks for other health issues without treatment.

Set Goals and Act

A patient’s course of treatment should follow the SMART model for goal-setting. The best treatment plans are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely to support the measurement of their efficacy. This model creates a repeatable process that is effective across patient demographics and conditions.

Critical thinking in nursing produces clear goals that are essential to patient adherence to treatment. Treatment plans may include prescribed medications, therapies and visits with specialists. Nurse practitioners collaborate with their patients and colleagues on supportive frameworks for effective treatment.

Evaluate and Reflect

Follow-up appointments provide opportunities for evaluation of treatment plans. Nurse practitioners compare past and present metrics when determining improvements in patient conditions. A useful method for evaluating success is whether the following rights of clinical reasoning were applied:

  • Right cues 
  • Right patient
  • Right action
  • Right reason

Frequent reflection on this process is essential for improvement as a nurse practitioner. Self-directed explorations of what should have been done and what could have happened in each case sharpen critical thinking skills. An understanding of what was learned in each case creates points of comparison for future patients.

Improving Your Critical Thinking

Critical thinking in nursing improves through thoughtful deliberation and frequent use. Nurse practitioners should speak with their colleagues and mentors about their applications of critical thinking. Frequent collaboration on patient care also places the focus on evidence-based care rather than personal assumptions.

Updated knowledge of nursing resources and tools makes it easier to implement critical thinking in nursing. Medical journals and continuing education courses reinforce what nurse practitioners have learned throughout their careers. Carson-Newman University provides a strong foundation for improved critical thinking through its Online MSN-FNP.

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Every course in the program is taught by an experienced nurse educator who also practices in their community. Carson-Newman reinforces the importance of critical thinking in nursing with courses on topics including:

  • Advanced Health Assessment
  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Advanced Primary Care Nursing for Adults

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