The Value of Critical Thinking in Nursing

Gayle Morris, MSN

  • How Nurses Use Critical Thinking
  • How to Improve Critical Thinking
  • Common Mistakes

Male nurse checking on a patient

Some experts describe a person’s ability to question belief systems, test previously held assumptions, and recognize ambiguity as evidence of critical thinking. Others identify specific skills that demonstrate critical thinking, such as the ability to identify problems and biases, infer and draw conclusions, and determine the relevance of information to a situation.

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN, has been a critical care nurse for 10 years in neurological trauma nursing and cardiovascular and surgical intensive care. He defines critical thinking as “necessary for problem-solving and decision-making by healthcare providers. It is a process where people use a logical process to gather information and take purposeful action based on their evaluation.”

“This cognitive process is vital for excellent patient outcomes because it requires that nurses make clinical decisions utilizing a variety of different lenses, such as fairness, ethics, and evidence-based practice,” he says.

How Do Nurses Use Critical Thinking?

Successful nurses think beyond their assigned tasks to deliver excellent care for their patients. For example, a nurse might be tasked with changing a wound dressing, delivering medications, and monitoring vital signs during a shift. However, it requires critical thinking skills to understand how a difference in the wound may affect blood pressure and temperature and when those changes may require immediate medical intervention.

Nurses care for many patients during their shifts. Strong critical thinking skills are crucial when juggling various tasks so patient safety and care are not compromised.

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN, is a nurse educator with a clinical background in surgical-trauma adult critical care, where critical thinking and action were essential to the safety of her patients. She talks about examples of critical thinking in a healthcare environment, saying:

“Nurses must also critically think to determine which patient to see first, which medications to pass first, and the order in which to organize their day caring for patients. Patient conditions and environments are continually in flux, therefore nurses must constantly be evaluating and re-evaluating information they gather (assess) to keep their patients safe.”

The COVID-19 pandemic created hospital care situations where critical thinking was essential. It was expected of the nurses on the general floor and in intensive care units. Crystal Slaughter is an advanced practice nurse in the intensive care unit (ICU) and a nurse educator. She observed critical thinking throughout the pandemic as she watched intensive care nurses test the boundaries of previously held beliefs and master providing excellent care while preserving resources.

“Nurses are at the patient’s bedside and are often the first ones to detect issues. Then, the nurse needs to gather the appropriate subjective and objective data from the patient in order to frame a concise problem statement or question for the physician or advanced practice provider,” she explains.

Top 5 Ways Nurses Can Improve Critical Thinking Skills

We asked our experts for the top five strategies nurses can use to purposefully improve their critical thinking skills.

Case-Based Approach

Slaughter is a fan of the case-based approach to learning critical thinking skills.

In much the same way a detective would approach a mystery, she mentors her students to ask questions about the situation that help determine the information they have and the information they need. “What is going on? What information am I missing? Can I get that information? What does that information mean for the patient? How quickly do I need to act?”

Consider forming a group and working with a mentor who can guide you through case studies. This provides you with a learner-centered environment in which you can analyze data to reach conclusions and develop communication, analytical, and collaborative skills with your colleagues.

Practice Self-Reflection

Rhoads is an advocate for self-reflection. “Nurses should reflect upon what went well or did not go well in their workday and identify areas of improvement or situations in which they should have reached out for help.” Self-reflection is a form of personal analysis to observe and evaluate situations and how you responded.

This gives you the opportunity to discover mistakes you may have made and to establish new behavior patterns that may help you make better decisions. You likely already do this. For example, after a disagreement or contentious meeting, you may go over the conversation in your head and think about ways you could have responded.

It’s important to go through the decisions you made during your day and determine if you should have gotten more information before acting or if you could have asked better questions.

During self-reflection, you may try thinking about the problem in reverse. This may not give you an immediate answer, but can help you see the situation with fresh eyes and a new perspective. How would the outcome of the day be different if you planned the dressing change in reverse with the assumption you would find a wound infection? How does this information change your plan for the next dressing change?

Develop a Questioning Mind

McGowan has learned that “critical thinking is a self-driven process. It isn’t something that can simply be taught. Rather, it is something that you practice and cultivate with experience. To develop critical thinking skills, you have to be curious and inquisitive.”

To gain critical thinking skills, you must undergo a purposeful process of learning strategies and using them consistently so they become a habit. One of those strategies is developing a questioning mind. Meaningful questions lead to useful answers and are at the core of critical thinking .

However, learning to ask insightful questions is a skill you must develop. Faced with staff and nursing shortages , declining patient conditions, and a rising number of tasks to be completed, it may be difficult to do more than finish the task in front of you. Yet, questions drive active learning and train your brain to see the world differently and take nothing for granted.

It is easier to practice questioning in a non-stressful, quiet environment until it becomes a habit. Then, in the moment when your patient’s care depends on your ability to ask the right questions, you can be ready to rise to the occasion.

Practice Self-Awareness in the Moment

Critical thinking in nursing requires self-awareness and being present in the moment. During a hectic shift, it is easy to lose focus as you struggle to finish every task needed for your patients. Passing medication, changing dressings, and hanging intravenous lines all while trying to assess your patient’s mental and emotional status can affect your focus and how you manage stress as a nurse .

Staying present helps you to be proactive in your thinking and anticipate what might happen, such as bringing extra lubricant for a catheterization or extra gloves for a dressing change.

By staying present, you are also better able to practice active listening. This raises your assessment skills and gives you more information as a basis for your interventions and decisions.

Use a Process

As you are developing critical thinking skills, it can be helpful to use a process. For example:

  • Ask questions.
  • Gather information.
  • Implement a strategy.
  • Evaluate the results.
  • Consider another point of view.

These are the fundamental steps of the nursing process (assess, diagnose, plan, implement, evaluate). The last step will help you overcome one of the common problems of critical thinking in nursing — personal bias.

Common Critical Thinking Pitfalls in Nursing

Your brain uses a set of processes to make inferences about what’s happening around you. In some cases, your unreliable biases can lead you down the wrong path. McGowan places personal biases at the top of his list of common pitfalls to critical thinking in nursing.

“We all form biases based on our own experiences. However, nurses have to learn to separate their own biases from each patient encounter to avoid making false assumptions that may interfere with their care,” he says. Successful critical thinkers accept they have personal biases and learn to look out for them. Awareness of your biases is the first step to understanding if your personal bias is contributing to the wrong decision.

New nurses may be overwhelmed by the transition from academics to clinical practice, leading to a task-oriented mindset and a common new nurse mistake ; this conflicts with critical thinking skills.

“Consider a patient whose blood pressure is low but who also needs to take a blood pressure medication at a scheduled time. A task-oriented nurse may provide the medication without regard for the patient’s blood pressure because medication administration is a task that must be completed,” Slaughter says. “A nurse employing critical thinking skills would address the low blood pressure, review the patient’s blood pressure history and trends, and potentially call the physician to discuss whether medication should be withheld.”

Fear and pride may also stand in the way of developing critical thinking skills. Your belief system and worldview provide comfort and guidance, but this can impede your judgment when you are faced with an individual whose belief system or cultural practices are not the same as yours. Fear or pride may prevent you from pursuing a line of questioning that would benefit the patient. Nurses with strong critical thinking skills exhibit:

  • Learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of other nurses
  • Look forward to integrating changes that improve patient care
  • Treat each patient interaction as a part of a whole
  • Evaluate new events based on past knowledge and adjust decision-making as needed
  • Solve problems with their colleagues
  • Are self-confident
  • Acknowledge biases and seek to ensure these do not impact patient care

An Essential Skill for All Nurses

Critical thinking in nursing protects patient health and contributes to professional development and career advancement. Administrative and clinical nursing leaders are required to have strong critical thinking skills to be successful in their positions.

By using the strategies in this guide during your daily life and in your nursing role, you can intentionally improve your critical thinking abilities and be rewarded with better patient outcomes and potential career advancement.

Frequently Asked Questions About Critical Thinking in Nursing

How are critical thinking skills utilized in nursing practice.

Nursing practice utilizes critical thinking skills to provide the best care for patients. Often, the patient’s cause of pain or health issue is not immediately clear. Nursing professionals need to use their knowledge to determine what might be causing distress, collect vital information, and make quick decisions on how best to handle the situation.

How does nursing school develop critical thinking skills?

Nursing school gives students the knowledge professional nurses use to make important healthcare decisions for their patients. Students learn about diseases, anatomy, and physiology, and how to improve the patient’s overall well-being. Learners also participate in supervised clinical experiences, where they practice using their critical thinking skills to make decisions in professional settings.

Do only nurse managers use critical thinking?

Nurse managers certainly use critical thinking skills in their daily duties. But when working in a health setting, anyone giving care to patients uses their critical thinking skills. Everyone — including licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, and advanced nurse practitioners —needs to flex their critical thinking skills to make potentially life-saving decisions.

Meet Our Contributors

Portrait of Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE

Crystal Slaughter, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, CNE

Crystal Slaughter is a core faculty member in Walden University’s RN-to-BSN program. She has worked as an advanced practice registered nurse with an intensivist/pulmonary service to provide care to hospitalized ICU patients and in inpatient palliative care. Slaughter’s clinical interests lie in nursing education and evidence-based practice initiatives to promote improving patient care.

Portrait of Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., RN

Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a nurse educator and freelance author and editor. She earned a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Rhoads earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students. Her clinical background includes surgical-trauma adult critical care, interventional radiology procedures, and conscious sedation in adult and pediatric populations.

Portrait of Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN

Nicholas McGowan, BSN, RN, CCRN

Nicholas McGowan is a critical care nurse with 10 years of experience in cardiovascular, surgical intensive care, and neurological trauma nursing. McGowan also has a background in education, leadership, and public speaking. He is an online learner who builds on his foundation of critical care nursing, which he uses directly at the bedside where he still practices. In addition, McGowan hosts an online course at Critical Care Academy where he helps nurses achieve critical care (CCRN) certification.

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

critical thinking for nurses examples

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?

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• 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?

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Critical Thinking in Nursing: Tips to Develop the Skill

4 min read • February, 09 2024

Critical thinking in nursing helps caregivers make decisions that lead to optimal patient care. In school, educators and clinical instructors introduced you to critical-thinking examples in nursing. These educators encouraged using learning tools for assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation.

Nurturing these invaluable skills continues once you begin practicing. Critical thinking is essential to providing quality patient care and should continue to grow throughout your nursing career until it becomes second nature. 

What Is Critical Thinking in Nursing?

Critical thinking in nursing involves identifying a problem, determining the best solution, and implementing an effective method to resolve the issue using clinical decision-making skills.

Reflection comes next. Carefully consider whether your actions led to the right solution or if there may have been a better course of action.

Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment method — you must determine what's best for each patient.

How Is Critical Thinking Important for Nurses? 

As a patient's primary contact, a nurse is typically the first to notice changes in their status. One example of critical thinking in nursing is interpreting these changes with an open mind. Make impartial decisions based on evidence rather than opinions. By applying critical-thinking skills to anticipate and understand your patients' needs, you can positively impact their quality of care and outcomes.

Elements of Critical Thinking in Nursing

To assess situations and make informed decisions, nurses must integrate these specific elements into their practice:

  • Clinical judgment. Prioritize a patient's care needs and make adjustments as changes occur. Gather the necessary information and determine what nursing intervention is needed. Keep in mind that there may be multiple options. Use your critical-thinking skills to interpret and understand the importance of test results and the patient’s clinical presentation, including their vital signs. Then prioritize interventions and anticipate potential complications. 
  • Patient safety. Recognize deviations from the norm and take action to prevent harm to the patient. Suppose you don't think a change in a patient's medication is appropriate for their treatment. Before giving the medication, question the physician's rationale for the modification to avoid a potential error. 
  • Communication and collaboration. Ask relevant questions and actively listen to others while avoiding judgment. Promoting a collaborative environment may lead to improved patient outcomes and interdisciplinary communication. 
  • Problem-solving skills. Practicing your problem-solving skills can improve your critical-thinking skills. Analyze the problem, consider alternate solutions, and implement the most appropriate one. Besides assessing patient conditions, you can apply these skills to other challenges, such as staffing issues . 

A diverse group of three (3) nursing students working together on a group project. The female nursing student is seated in the middle and is pointing at the laptop screen while talking with her male classmates.

How to Develop and Apply Critical-Thinking Skills in Nursing

Critical-thinking skills develop as you gain experience and advance in your career. The ability to predict and respond to nursing challenges increases as you expand your knowledge and encounter real-life patient care scenarios outside of what you learned from a textbook. 

Here are five ways to nurture your critical-thinking skills:

  • Be a lifelong learner. Continuous learning through educational courses and professional development lets you stay current with evidence-based practice . That knowledge helps you make informed decisions in stressful moments.  
  • Practice reflection. Allow time each day to reflect on successes and areas for improvement. This self-awareness can help identify your strengths, weaknesses, and personal biases to guide your decision-making.
  • Open your mind. Don't assume you're right. Ask for opinions and consider the viewpoints of other nurses, mentors , and interdisciplinary team members.
  • Use critical-thinking tools. Structure your thinking by incorporating nursing process steps or a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) to organize information, evaluate options, and identify underlying issues.
  • Be curious. Challenge assumptions by asking questions to ensure current care methods are valid, relevant, and supported by evidence-based practice .

Critical thinking in nursing is invaluable for safe, effective, patient-centered care. You can successfully navigate challenges in the ever-changing health care environment by continually developing and applying these skills.

Images sourced from Getty Images

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The importance of critical thinking in nursing.

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critical thinking in nursing

While not every decision is an immediate life-and-death situation, there are hundreds of decisions nurses must make every day that impact patient care in ways small and large.

“Being able to assess situations and make decisions can lead to life-or-death situations,” said nurse anesthetist Aisha Allen . “Critical thinking is a crucial and essential skill for nurses.”

The National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC) defines critical thinking in nursing this way: “the deliberate nonlinear process of collecting, interpreting, analyzing, drawing conclusions about, presenting, and evaluating information that is both factually and belief-based. This is demonstrated in nursing by clinical judgment, which includes ethical, diagnostic, and therapeutic dimensions and research.”

Why Critical Thinking in Nursing Is Important

An eight-year study by Johns Hopkins reports that 10% of deaths in the U.S. are due to medical error — the third-highest cause of death in the country.

“Diagnostic errors, medical mistakes, and the absence of safety nets could result in someone’s death,” wrote Dr. Martin Makary , professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Everyone makes mistakes — even doctors. Nurses applying critical thinking skills can help reduce errors.

“Question everything,” said pediatric nurse practitioner Ersilia Pompilio RN, MSN, PNP . “Especially doctor’s orders.” Nurses often spend more time with patients than doctors and may notice slight changes in conditions that may not be obvious. Resolving these observations with treatment plans can help lead to better care.

Key Nursing Critical Thinking Skills

Some of the most important critical thinking skills nurses use daily include interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation.

  • Interpretation: Understanding the meaning of information or events.
  • Analysis: Investigating a course of action based on objective and subjective data.
  • Evaluation: Assessing the value of information and its credibility.
  • Inference: Making logical deductions about the impact of care decisions.
  • Explanation: Translating complicated and often complex medical information to patients and families in a way they can understand to make decisions about patient care.
  • Self-Regulation: Avoiding the impact of unconscious bias with cognitive awareness.

These skills are used in conjunction with clinical reasoning. Based on training and experience, nurses use these skills and then have to make decisions affecting care.

It’s the ultimate test of a nurse’s ability to gather reliable data and solve complex problems. However, critical thinking goes beyond just solving problems. Critical thinking incorporates questioning and critiquing solutions to find the most effective one. For example, treating immediate symptoms may temporarily solve a problem, but determining the underlying cause of the symptoms is the key to effective long-term health.

8 Examples of Critical Thinking in Nursing

Here are some real-life examples of how nurses apply critical thinking on the job every day, as told by nurses themselves.

Example #1: Patient Assessments

“Doing a thorough assessment on your patient can help you detect that something is wrong, even if you're not quite sure what it is,” said Shantay Carter , registered nurse and co-founder of Women of Integrity . “When you notice the change, you have to use your critical thinking skills to decide what's the next step. Critical thinking allows you to provide the best and safest care possible.”

Example #2: First Line of Defense

Often, nurses are the first line of defense for patients.

“One example would be a patient that had an accelerated heart rate,” said nurse educator and adult critical care nurse Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads . “As a nurse, it was my job to investigate the cause of the heart rate and implement nursing actions to help decrease the heart rate prior to calling the primary care provider.”

Nurses with poor critical thinking skills may fail to detect a patient in stress or deteriorating condition. This can result in what’s called a “ failure to rescue ,” or FTR, which can lead to adverse conditions following a complication that leads to mortality.

Example #3: Patient Interactions

Nurses are the ones taking initial reports or discussing care with patients.

“We maintain relationships with patients between office visits,” said registered nurse, care coordinator, and ambulatory case manager Amelia Roberts . “So, when there is a concern, we are the first name that comes to mind (and get the call).”

“Several times, a parent called after the child had a high temperature, and the call came in after hours,” Roberts said. “Doing a nursing assessment over the phone is a special skill, yet based on the information gathered related to the child's behavior (and) fluid intake, there were several recommendations I could make.”

Deciding whether it was OK to wait until the morning, page the primary care doctor, or go to the emergency room to be evaluated takes critical thinking.

Example #4: Using Detective Skills

Nurses have to use acute listening skills to discern what patients are really telling them (or not telling them) and whether they are getting the whole story.

“I once had a 5-year-old patient who came in for asthma exacerbation on repeated occasions into my clinic,” said Pompilio. “The mother swore she was giving her child all her medications, but the asthma just kept getting worse.”

Pompilio asked the parent to keep a medication diary.

“It turned out that after a day or so of medication and alleviation in some symptoms, the mother thought the child was getting better and stopped all medications,” she said.

Example #5: Prioritizing

“Critical thinking is present in almost all aspects of nursing, even those that are not in direct action with the patient,” said Rhoads. “During report, nurses decide which patient to see first based on the information gathered, and from there they must prioritize their actions when in a patient’s room. Nurses must be able to scrutinize which medications can be taken together, and which modality would be best to help a patient move from the bed to the chair.”

A critical thinking skill in prioritization is cognitive stacking. Cognitive stacking helps create smooth workflow management to set priorities and help nurses manage their time. It helps establish routines for care while leaving room within schedules for the unplanned events that will inevitably occur. Even experienced nurses can struggle with juggling today’s significant workload, prioritizing responsibilities, and delegating appropriately.

Example #6: Medication & Care Coordination

Another aspect that often falls to nurses is care coordination. A nurse may be the first to notice that a patient is having an issue with medications.

“Based on a report of illness in a patient who has autoimmune challenges, we might recommend that a dose of medicine that interferes with immune response be held until we communicate with their specialty provider,” said Roberts.

Nurses applying critical skills can also help ease treatment concerns for patients.

“We might recommend a patient who gets infusions come in earlier in the day to get routine labs drawn before the infusion to minimize needle sticks and trauma,” Robert said.

Example #7: Critical Decisions

During the middle of an operation, the anesthesia breathing machine Allen was using malfunctioned.

“I had to critically think about whether or not I could fix this machine or abandon that mode of delivering nursing anesthesia care safely,” she said. “I chose to disconnect my patient from the malfunctioning machine and retrieve tools and medications to resume medication administration so that the surgery could go on.”

Nurses are also called on to do rapid assessments of patient conditions and make split-second decisions in the operating room.

“When blood pressure drops, it is my responsibility to decide which medication and how much medication will fix the issue,” Allen said. “I must work alongside the surgeons and the operating room team to determine the best plan of care for that patient's surgery.”

“On some days, it seems like you are in the movie ‘The Matrix,’” said Pompilio. “There's lots of chaos happening around you. Your patient might be decompensating. You have to literally stop time and take yourself out of the situation and make a decision.”

Example #8: Fast & Flexible Decisions

Allen said she thinks electronics are great, but she can remember a time when technology failed her.

“The hospital monitor that gives us vitals stopped correlating with real-time values,” she said. “So I had to rely on basic nursing skills to make sure my patient was safe. (Pulse check, visual assessments, etc.)”

In such cases, there may not be enough time to think through every possible outcome. Critical thinking combined with experience gives nurses the ability to think quickly and make the right decisions.

Improving the Quality of Patient Care

Nurses who think critically are in a position to significantly increase the quality of patient care and avoid adverse outcomes.

“Critical thinking allows you to ensure patient safety,” said Carter. “It’s essential to being a good nurse.”

Nurses must be able to recognize a change in a patient’s condition, conduct independent interventions, anticipate patients and provider needs, and prioritize. Such actions require critical thinking ability and advanced problem-solving skills.

“Nurses are the eyes and ears for patients, and critical thinking allows us to be their advocates,” said Allen.

Image courtesy of iStock.com/ davidf

Last updated on Jan 05, 2024 .

Originally published on Aug 25, 2021 .

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Berxi™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice. Click here to read our full disclaimer

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Critical Thinking on the Nursing Floor

Critical thinking can seem like such an abstract term that you don’t practically use. However, this could not be farther from the truth. Critical thinking is frequently used in nursing. Let me give you a few examples from my career in which critical thinking helped me take better care of my patient.

The truth is, that as nurses we can’t escape critical thinking . . . I know you hate the word . . . but let me show you how it actually works!

Critical Thinking in Nursing: Example 1

I had a patient that was scheduled to go to get a pacemaker placed at 0900. The physician wanted the patient to get 2 units of blood before going downstairs for the procedure. I administered it per protocol. About 30 minutes after that second unit got started, I noticed his oxygen went from 95% down to 92% down to 90%. I put 2L of O2 on him and it came up to 91%. But it just sort of hung around the low 90s on oxygen.

I stopped. And thought. What the heck is going on?

I looked at his history. Congestive heart failure.

I looked at his intake and output. He was positive 1.5 liters.

I thought about how he’s got extra fluid in general, and because of his CHF, he can’t really pump out the fluid he already has, let alone this additional fluid. Maybe I should listen to his lungs..

His lungs were clear earlier. I heard crackles throughout both lungs.

OK, so he’s got extra fluid that he can’t get out of his body. What do I know that will get rid of extra fluid and make him pee? Maybe some Lasix?

I ran over my thought process with a coworker before calling the doc. They agreed. I called the doc and before I could suggest anything, he said “Give him 20 mg IV Lasix one time, and I’ll put the order in.” CLICK.

I gave the Lasix. He peed like a racehorse (and was NOT happy with me for making that happen!). And he was off of oxygen before he went down to get his pacemaker.

Badda Bing Bada Boom!

Critical Thinking in Nursing: Example 2

My patient just had her right leg amputated above her knee. She was on a Dilaudid PCA and still complaining of awful pain. She maxed it out every time, still saying she was in horrible pain. She told the doctor when he rounded that morning that the meds weren’t doing anything. He added some oral opioids as well and wrote an order that it was okay for me to give both the oral and PCA dosings, with the goal of weaning off PCA.

“How am I going to do that?” I thought. She kept requiring more and more meds and I’m supposed to someone wean her off?

I asked her to describe her pain. She said it felt like nerve pain. Deep burning and tingling. She said the pain meds would just knock her out and she’d sleep for a little while but wake up in even worse pain. She was at the end of her rope.

I thought about nerve pain. I thought about other patients that report similar pain. Diabetics with neuropathy would talk about similar pain… “What did they do for it? ” I thought. Then I remembered that many of my patients with diabetic neuropathy were taking gabapentin daily for pain.

“So if this works for their nerve pain, could it work for a patient who has had an amputation?” I thought.

I called the PA for the surgeon and asked them what they thought about trying something like gabapentin for her pain after I described my patient’s type of pain and thought process.

“That’s a really good idea, Kati. I’ll write for it and we’ll see if we can get her off the opioids sooner. ”

She wrote for it. I gave it. It takes a few days to really kick in and once it did, the patient’s pain and discomfort were significantly reduced. She said to get rid of those other pain meds because they “didn’t do a damn thing,” and to “just give her that nerve pain pill because it’s the only thing that works”.

And that we did!

She was able to work with therapy more because her pain was tolerable and was finally able to get rest.

What the HELL is Critical Thinking . . . and Why Should I Care?

What your nursing professor won’t tell you about critical thinking .

by Ashely Adkins RN BSN

When I started nursing school, I remember thinking,   “how in the world am I going to remember all of this information, let alone be able to apply it and critically think?”   You are not alone if you feel like your critical thinking skills need a little bit of polishing.

Let’s step back for a moment, and take a walk down memory lane. It was my first semester of nursing school and I was sitting in my Fundamentals of Nursing course. We were learning about vital signs, assessments, labs, etc. Feeling overwhelmed with all of this new information (when are you   not   overwhelmed in nursing school?), I let my mind wonder to a low place…

Am I really cut out for this? Can I really do this? How can I possibly retain all of this information?  Do they really expect me to remember everything AND critically think at the same time?

One of my first-semester nursing professors said something to me that has stuck with me throughout my nursing years. It went a little something like this:

“Critical thinking does not develop overnight . It takes time. You don’t learn to talk overnight or walk overnight. You don’t   learn to critically think overnight .”

My professor was absolutely right.

As my journey throughout nursing school, and eventually on to being a “real nurse” continued, my critical thinking skills began to BLOSSOM. With every class, lecture, clinical shift, lab, and simulation, my critical thinking skills grew.

You may ask…how?

Well, let me tell you…

  • Questioning

These are the key ingredients to growing your critical thinking skills.

Time.   Critical thinking takes time. As I mentioned before, you do not learn how to critically think overnight. It is important to set   realistic   expectations for yourself both in nursing school and in other aspects of your life.

Exposure.   It is next to impossible to critically think if you have never been exposed to something. How would you ever learn to talk if no one ever talked to you? The same thing applies to nursing and critical thinking.

Over time, your exposure to new materials and situations will cause you to think and ask yourself, “why?”

This leads me to my next point.   Questioning.   Do not be afraid to ask yourself…

“Why is this happening?”

“Why do I take a blood pressure and heart rate before I give a beta-blocker?”

“Why is it important to listen to a patient’s lung sounds before and after they receive a blood transfusion?”

It is important to constantly question yourself. Let your mind process your questions, and discover answers.

Confidence.   We always hear the phrase, “confidence is key!” And as cheesy as that phrase may be, it really holds true. So many times, we often times sell ourselves short.

YOU KNOW MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU KNOW.

In case you did not catch it the first time…

Be confident in your knowledge, because trust me, it is there. It may be hiding in one single neuron in the back of your brain, but it is there.

It is impossible to know everything. Even experienced nurses do not know everything.

And if they tell you that they do…they are wrong!

The   key   to critical thinking is   not about knowing everything ; It is about   how you respond when you do not know something .

How do you reason through a problem you do not know the answer to? Do you give up? Or do you persevere until you discover the answer?

If you are a nursing student preparing for the NCLEX, you know that the NCLEX   loves   critical thinking questions. NRSNG has some great tips and advice on   critical thinking when it comes to taking the NCLEX .

There are so many pieces to the puzzle when it comes to nursing, and it is normal to feel overwhelmed. The beauty of nursing is when all of those puzzle pieces come together to form a beautiful picture.

That is critical thinking.

Critical thinking is something you’ll do every day as a nurse and honestly, you probably do it in your regular non-nurse life as well. It’s basically stopping, looking at a situation, identifying a solution, and trying it out. Critical thinking in nursing is just that but in a clinical setting.

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NCBI Bookshelf. A service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

Hughes RG, editor. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2008 Apr.

Cover of Patient Safety and Quality

Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses.

Chapter 6 clinical reasoning, decisionmaking, and action: thinking critically and clinically.

Patricia Benner ; Ronda G. Hughes ; Molly Sutphen .

Affiliations

This chapter examines multiple thinking strategies that are needed for high-quality clinical practice. Clinical reasoning and judgment are examined in relation to other modes of thinking used by clinical nurses in providing quality health care to patients that avoids adverse events and patient harm. The clinician’s ability to provide safe, high-quality care can be dependent upon their ability to reason, think, and judge, which can be limited by lack of experience. The expert performance of nurses is dependent upon continual learning and evaluation of performance.

  • Critical Thinking

Nursing education has emphasized critical thinking as an essential nursing skill for more than 50 years. 1 The definitions of critical thinking have evolved over the years. There are several key definitions for critical thinking to consider. The American Philosophical Association (APA) defined critical thinking as purposeful, self-regulatory judgment that uses cognitive tools such as interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, and explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations on which judgment is based. 2 A more expansive general definition of critical thinking is

. . . in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism. Every clinician must develop rigorous habits of critical thinking, but they cannot escape completely the situatedness and structures of the clinical traditions and practices in which they must make decisions and act quickly in specific clinical situations. 3

There are three key definitions for nursing, which differ slightly. Bittner and Tobin defined critical thinking as being “influenced by knowledge and experience, using strategies such as reflective thinking as a part of learning to identify the issues and opportunities, and holistically synthesize the information in nursing practice” 4 (p. 268). Scheffer and Rubenfeld 5 expanded on the APA definition for nurses through a consensus process, resulting in the following definition:

Critical thinking in nursing is an essential component of professional accountability and quality nursing care. Critical thinkers in nursing exhibit these habits of the mind: confidence, contextual perspective, creativity, flexibility, inquisitiveness, intellectual integrity, intuition, openmindedness, perseverance, and reflection. Critical thinkers in nursing practice the cognitive skills of analyzing, applying standards, discriminating, information seeking, logical reasoning, predicting, and transforming knowledge 6 (Scheffer & Rubenfeld, p. 357).

The National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC) defined 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. This is demonstrated in nursing by clinical judgment, which includes ethical, diagnostic, and therapeutic dimensions and research 7 (p. 8).

These concepts are furthered by the American Association of Colleges of Nurses’ definition of critical thinking in their Essentials of Baccalaureate Nursing :

Critical thinking underlies independent and interdependent decision making. Critical thinking includes questioning, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, inference, inductive and deductive reasoning, intuition, application, and creativity 8 (p. 9).
Course work or ethical experiences should provide the graduate with the knowledge and skills to:
  • Use nursing and other appropriate theories and models, and an appropriate ethical framework;
  • Apply research-based knowledge from nursing and the sciences as the basis for practice;
  • Use clinical judgment and decision-making skills;
  • Engage in self-reflective and collegial dialogue about professional practice;
  • Evaluate nursing care outcomes through the acquisition of data and the questioning of inconsistencies, allowing for the revision of actions and goals;
  • Engage in creative problem solving 8 (p. 10).

Taken together, these definitions of critical thinking set forth the scope and key elements of thought processes involved in providing clinical care. Exactly how critical thinking is defined will influence how it is taught and to what standard of care nurses will be held accountable.

Professional and regulatory bodies in nursing education have required that critical thinking be central to all nursing curricula, but they have not adequately distinguished critical reflection from ethical, clinical, or even creative thinking for decisionmaking or actions required by the clinician. Other essential modes of thought such as clinical reasoning, evaluation of evidence, creative thinking, or the application of well-established standards of practice—all distinct from critical reflection—have been subsumed under the rubric of critical thinking. In the nursing education literature, clinical reasoning and judgment are often conflated with critical thinking. The accrediting bodies and nursing scholars have included decisionmaking and action-oriented, practical, ethical, and clinical reasoning in the rubric of critical reflection and thinking. One might say that this harmless semantic confusion is corrected by actual practices, except that students need to understand the distinctions between critical reflection and clinical reasoning, and they need to learn to discern when each is better suited, just as students need to also engage in applying standards, evidence-based practices, and creative thinking.

The growing body of research, patient acuity, and complexity of care demand higher-order thinking skills. Critical thinking involves the application of knowledge and experience to identify patient problems and to direct clinical judgments and actions that result in positive patient outcomes. These skills can be cultivated by educators who display the virtues of critical thinking, including independence of thought, intellectual curiosity, courage, humility, empathy, integrity, perseverance, and fair-mindedness. 9

The process of critical thinking is stimulated by integrating the essential knowledge, experiences, and clinical reasoning that support professional practice. The emerging paradigm for clinical thinking and cognition is that it is social and dialogical rather than monological and individual. 10–12 Clinicians pool their wisdom and multiple perspectives, yet some clinical knowledge can be demonstrated only in the situation (e.g., how to suction an extremely fragile patient whose oxygen saturations sink too low). Early warnings of problematic situations are made possible by clinicians comparing their observations to that of other providers. Clinicians form practice communities that create styles of practice, including ways of doing things, communication styles and mechanisms, and shared expectations about performance and expertise of team members.

By holding up critical thinking as a large umbrella for different modes of thinking, students can easily misconstrue the logic and purposes of different modes of thinking. Clinicians and scientists alike need multiple thinking strategies, such as critical thinking, clinical judgment, diagnostic reasoning, deliberative rationality, scientific reasoning, dialogue, argument, creative thinking, and so on. In particular, clinicians need forethought and an ongoing grasp of a patient’s health status and care needs trajectory, which requires an assessment of their own clarity and understanding of the situation at hand, critical reflection, critical reasoning, and clinical judgment.

Critical Reflection, Critical Reasoning, and Judgment

Critical reflection requires that the thinker examine the underlying assumptions and radically question or doubt the validity of arguments, assertions, and even facts of the case. Critical reflective skills are essential for clinicians; however, these skills are not sufficient for the clinician who must decide how to act in particular situations and avoid patient injury. For example, in everyday practice, clinicians cannot afford to critically reflect on the well-established tenets of “normal” or “typical” human circulatory systems when trying to figure out a particular patient’s alterations from that typical, well-grounded understanding that has existed since Harvey’s work in 1628. 13 Yet critical reflection can generate new scientifically based ideas. For example, there is a lack of adequate research on the differences between women’s and men’s circulatory systems and the typical pathophysiology related to heart attacks. Available research is based upon multiple, taken-for-granted starting points about the general nature of the circulatory system. As such, critical reflection may not provide what is needed for a clinician to act in a situation. This idea can be considered reasonable since critical reflective thinking is not sufficient for good clinical reasoning and judgment. The clinician’s development of skillful critical reflection depends upon being taught what to pay attention to, and thus gaining a sense of salience that informs the powers of perceptual grasp. The powers of noticing or perceptual grasp depend upon noticing what is salient and the capacity to respond to the situation.

Critical reflection is a crucial professional skill, but it is not the only reasoning skill or logic clinicians require. The ability to think critically uses reflection, induction, deduction, analysis, challenging assumptions, and evaluation of data and information to guide decisionmaking. 9 , 14 , 15 Critical reasoning is a process whereby knowledge and experience are applied in considering multiple possibilities to achieve the desired goals, 16 while considering the patient’s situation. 14 It is a process where both inductive and deductive cognitive skills are used. 17 Sometimes clinical reasoning is presented as a form of evaluating scientific knowledge, sometimes even as a form of scientific reasoning. Critical thinking is inherent in making sound clinical reasoning. 18

An essential point of tension and confusion exists in practice traditions such as nursing and medicine when clinical reasoning and critical reflection become entangled, because the clinician must have some established bases that are not questioned when engaging in clinical decisions and actions, such as standing orders. The clinician must act in the particular situation and time with the best clinical and scientific knowledge available. The clinician cannot afford to indulge in either ritualistic unexamined knowledge or diagnostic or therapeutic nihilism caused by radical doubt, as in critical reflection, because they must find an intelligent and effective way to think and act in particular clinical situations. Critical reflection skills are essential to assist practitioners to rethink outmoded or even wrong-headed approaches to health care, health promotion, and prevention of illness and complications, especially when new evidence is available. Breakdowns in practice, high failure rates in particular therapies, new diseases, new scientific discoveries, and societal changes call for critical reflection about past assumptions and no-longer-tenable beliefs.

Clinical reasoning stands out as a situated, practice-based form of reasoning that requires a background of scientific and technological research-based knowledge about general cases, more so than any particular instance. It also requires practical ability to discern the relevance of the evidence behind general scientific and technical knowledge and how it applies to a particular patient. In dong so, the clinician considers the patient’s particular clinical trajectory, their concerns and preferences, and their particular vulnerabilities (e.g., having multiple comorbidities) and sensitivities to care interventions (e.g., known drug allergies, other conflicting comorbid conditions, incompatible therapies, and past responses to therapies) when forming clinical decisions or conclusions.

Situated in a practice setting, clinical reasoning occurs within social relationships or situations involving patient, family, community, and a team of health care providers. The expert clinician situates themselves within a nexus of relationships, with concerns that are bounded by the situation. Expert clinical reasoning is socially engaged with the relationships and concerns of those who are affected by the caregiving situation, and when certain circumstances are present, the adverse event. Halpern 19 has called excellent clinical ethical reasoning “emotional reasoning” in that the clinicians have emotional access to the patient/family concerns and their understanding of the particular care needs. Expert clinicians also seek an optimal perceptual grasp, one based on understanding and as undistorted as possible, based on an attuned emotional engagement and expert clinical knowledge. 19 , 20

Clergy educators 21 and nursing and medical educators have begun to recognize the wisdom of broadening their narrow vision of rationality beyond simple rational calculation (exemplified by cost-benefit analysis) to reconsider the need for character development—including emotional engagement, perception, habits of thought, and skill acquisition—as essential to the development of expert clinical reasoning, judgment, and action. 10 , 22–24 Practitioners of engineering, law, medicine, and nursing, like the clergy, have to develop a place to stand in their discipline’s tradition of knowledge and science in order to recognize and evaluate salient evidence in the moment. Diagnostic confusion and disciplinary nihilism are both threats to the clinician’s ability to act in particular situations. However, the practice and practitioners will not be self-improving and vital if they cannot engage in critical reflection on what is not of value, what is outmoded, and what does not work. As evidence evolves and expands, so too must clinical thought.

Clinical judgment requires clinical reasoning across time about the particular, and because of the relevance of this immediate historical unfolding, clinical reasoning can be very different from the scientific reasoning used to formulate, conduct, and assess clinical experiments. While scientific reasoning is also socially embedded in a nexus of social relationships and concerns, the goal of detached, critical objectivity used to conduct scientific experiments minimizes the interactive influence of the research on the experiment once it has begun. Scientific research in the natural and clinical sciences typically uses formal criteria to develop “yes” and “no” judgments at prespecified times. The scientist is always situated in past and immediate scientific history, preferring to evaluate static and predetermined points in time (e.g., snapshot reasoning), in contrast to a clinician who must always reason about transitions over time. 25 , 26

Techne and Phronesis

Distinctions between the mere scientific making of things and practice was first explored by Aristotle as distinctions between techne and phronesis. 27 Learning to be a good practitioner requires developing the requisite moral imagination for good practice. If, for example, patients exercise their rights and refuse treatments, practitioners are required to have the moral imagination to understand the probable basis for the patient’s refusal. For example, was the refusal based upon catastrophic thinking, unrealistic fears, misunderstanding, or even clinical depression?

Techne, as defined by Aristotle, encompasses the notion of formation of character and habitus 28 as embodied beings. In Aristotle’s terms, techne refers to the making of things or producing outcomes. 11 Joseph Dunne defines techne as “the activity of producing outcomes,” and it “is governed by a means-ends rationality where the maker or producer governs the thing or outcomes produced or made through gaining mastery over the means of producing the outcomes, to the point of being able to separate means and ends” 11 (p. 54). While some aspects of medical and nursing practice fall into the category of techne, much of nursing and medical practice falls outside means-ends rationality and must be governed by concern for doing good or what is best for the patient in particular circumstances, where being in a relationship and discerning particular human concerns at stake guide action.

Phronesis, in contrast to techne, includes reasoning about the particular, across time, through changes or transitions in the patient’s and/or the clinician’s understanding. As noted by Dunne, phronesis is “characterized at least as much by a perceptiveness with regard to concrete particulars as by a knowledge of universal principles” 11 (p. 273). This type of practical reasoning often takes the form of puzzle solving or the evaluation of immediate past “hot” history of the patient’s situation. Such a particular clinical situation is necessarily particular, even though many commonalities and similarities with other disease syndromes can be recognized through signs and symptoms and laboratory tests. 11 , 29 , 30 Pointing to knowledge embedded in a practice makes no claim for infallibility or “correctness.” Individual practitioners can be mistaken in their judgments because practices such as medicine and nursing are inherently underdetermined. 31

While phronetic knowledge must remain open to correction and improvement, real events, and consequences, it cannot consistently transcend the institutional setting’s capacities and supports for good practice. Phronesis is also dependent on ongoing experiential learning of the practitioner, where knowledge is refined, corrected, or refuted. The Western tradition, with the notable exception of Aristotle, valued knowledge that could be made universal and devalued practical know-how and experiential learning. Descartes codified this preference for formal logic and rational calculation.

Aristotle recognized that when knowledge is underdetermined, changeable, and particular, it cannot be turned into the universal or standardized. It must be perceived, discerned, and judged, all of which require experiential learning. In nursing and medicine, perceptual acuity in physical assessment and clinical judgment (i.e., reasoning across time about changes in the particular patient or the clinician’s understanding of the patient’s condition) fall into the Greek Aristotelian category of phronesis. Dewey 32 sought to rescue knowledge gained by practical activity in the world. He identified three flaws in the understanding of experience in Greek philosophy: (1) empirical knowing is the opposite of experience with science; (2) practice is reduced to techne or the application of rational thought or technique; and (3) action and skilled know-how are considered temporary and capricious as compared to reason, which the Greeks considered as ultimate reality.

In practice, nursing and medicine require both techne and phronesis. The clinician standardizes and routinizes what can be standardized and routinized, as exemplified by standardized blood pressure measurements, diagnoses, and even charting about the patient’s condition and treatment. 27 Procedural and scientific knowledge can often be formalized and standardized (e.g., practice guidelines), or at least made explicit and certain in practice, except for the necessary timing and adjustments made for particular patients. 11 , 22

Rational calculations available to techne—population trends and statistics, algorithms—are created as decision support structures and can improve accuracy when used as a stance of inquiry in making clinical judgments about particular patients. Aggregated evidence from clinical trials and ongoing working knowledge of pathophysiology, biochemistry, and genomics are essential. In addition, the skills of phronesis (clinical judgment that reasons across time, taking into account the transitions of the particular patient/family/community and transitions in the clinician’s understanding of the clinical situation) will be required for nursing, medicine, or any helping profession.

Thinking Critically

Being able to think critically enables nurses to meet the needs of patients within their context and considering their preferences; meet the needs of patients within the context of uncertainty; consider alternatives, resulting in higher-quality care; 33 and think reflectively, rather than simply accepting statements and performing tasks without significant understanding and evaluation. 34 Skillful practitioners can think critically because they have the following cognitive skills: information seeking, discriminating, analyzing, transforming knowledge, predicating, applying standards, and logical reasoning. 5 One’s ability to think critically can be affected by age, length of education (e.g., an associate vs. a baccalaureate decree in nursing), and completion of philosophy or logic subjects. 35–37 The skillful practitioner can think critically because of having the following characteristics: motivation, perseverance, fair-mindedness, and deliberate and careful attention to thinking. 5 , 9

Thinking critically implies that one has a knowledge base from which to reason and the ability to analyze and evaluate evidence. 38 Knowledge can be manifest by the logic and rational implications of decisionmaking. Clinical decisionmaking is particularly influenced by interpersonal relationships with colleagues, 39 patient conditions, availability of resources, 40 knowledge, and experience. 41 Of these, experience has been shown to enhance nurses’ abilities to make quick decisions 42 and fewer decision errors, 43 support the identification of salient cues, and foster the recognition and action on patterns of information. 44 , 45

Clinicians must develop the character and relational skills that enable them to perceive and understand their patient’s needs and concerns. This requires accurate interpretation of patient data that is relevant to the specific patient and situation. In nursing, this formation of moral agency focuses on learning to be responsible in particular ways demanded by the practice, and to pay attention and intelligently discern changes in patients’ concerns and/or clinical condition that require action on the part of the nurse or other health care workers to avert potential compromises to quality care.

Formation of the clinician’s character, skills, and habits are developed in schools and particular practice communities within a larger practice tradition. As Dunne notes,

A practice is not just a surface on which one can display instant virtuosity. It grounds one in a tradition that has been formed through an elaborate development and that exists at any juncture only in the dispositions (slowly and perhaps painfully acquired) of its recognized practitioners. The question may of course be asked whether there are any such practices in the contemporary world, whether the wholesale encroachment of Technique has not obliterated them—and whether this is not the whole point of MacIntyre’s recipe of withdrawal, as well as of the post-modern story of dispossession 11 (p. 378).

Clearly Dunne is engaging in critical reflection about the conditions for developing character, skills, and habits for skillful and ethical comportment of practitioners, as well as to act as moral agents for patients so that they and their families receive safe, effective, and compassionate care.

Professional socialization or professional values, while necessary, do not adequately address character and skill formation that transform the way the practitioner exists in his or her world, what the practitioner is capable of noticing and responding to, based upon well-established patterns of emotional responses, skills, dispositions to act, and the skills to respond, decide, and act. 46 The need for character and skill formation of the clinician is what makes a practice stand out from a mere technical, repetitious manufacturing process. 11 , 30 , 47

In nursing and medicine, many have questioned whether current health care institutions are designed to promote or hinder enlightened, compassionate practice, or whether they have deteriorated into commercial institutional models that focus primarily on efficiency and profit. MacIntyre points out the links between the ongoing development and improvement of practice traditions and the institutions that house them:

Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues—these corrupt traditions, just as they do those institutions and practices which derive their life from the traditions of which they are the contemporary embodiments. To recognize this is of course also to recognize the existence of an additional virtue, one whose importance is perhaps most obvious when it is least present, the virtue of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs or which confront one. This virtue is not to be confused with any form of conservative antiquarianism; I am not praising those who choose the conventional conservative role of laudator temporis acti. It is rather the case that an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present. Living traditions, just because they continue a not-yet-completed narrative, confront a future whose determinate and determinable character, so far as it possesses any, derives from the past 30 (p. 207).

It would be impossible to capture all the situated and distributed knowledge outside of actual practice situations and particular patients. Simulations are powerful as teaching tools to enable nurses’ ability to think critically because they give students the opportunity to practice in a simplified environment. However, students can be limited in their inability to convey underdetermined situations where much of the information is based on perceptions of many aspects of the patient and changes that have occurred over time. Simulations cannot have the sub-cultures formed in practice settings that set the social mood of trust, distrust, competency, limited resources, or other forms of situated possibilities.

One of the hallmark studies in nursing providing keen insight into understanding the influence of experience was a qualitative study of adult, pediatric, and neonatal intensive care unit (ICU) nurses, where the nurses were clustered into advanced beginner, intermediate, and expert level of practice categories. The advanced beginner (having up to 6 months of work experience) used procedures and protocols to determine which clinical actions were needed. When confronted with a complex patient situation, the advanced beginner felt their practice was unsafe because of a knowledge deficit or because of a knowledge application confusion. The transition from advanced beginners to competent practitioners began when they first had experience with actual clinical situations and could benefit from the knowledge gained from the mistakes of their colleagues. Competent nurses continuously questioned what they saw and heard, feeling an obligation to know more about clinical situations. In doing do, they moved from only using care plans and following the physicians’ orders to analyzing and interpreting patient situations. Beyond that, the proficient nurse acknowledged the changing relevance of clinical situations requiring action beyond what was planned or anticipated. The proficient nurse learned to acknowledge the changing needs of patient care and situation, and could organize interventions “by the situation as it unfolds rather than by preset goals 48 (p. 24). Both competent and proficient nurses (that is, intermediate level of practice) had at least two years of ICU experience. 48 Finally, the expert nurse had a more fully developed grasp of a clinical situation, a sense of confidence in what is known about the situation, and could differentiate the precise clinical problem in little time. 48

Expertise is acquired through professional experience and is indicative of a nurse who has moved beyond mere proficiency. As Gadamer 29 points out, experience involves a turning around of preconceived notions, preunderstandings, and extends or adds nuances to understanding. Dewey 49 notes that experience requires a prepared “creature” and an enriched environment. The opportunity to reflect and narrate one’s experiential learning can clarify, extend, or even refute experiential learning.

Experiential learning requires time and nurturing, but time alone does not ensure experiential learning. Aristotle linked experiential learning to the development of character and moral sensitivities of a person learning a practice. 50 New nurses/new graduates have limited work experience and must experience continuing learning until they have reached an acceptable level of performance. 51 After that, further improvements are not predictable, and years of experience are an inadequate predictor of expertise. 52

The most effective knower and developer of practical knowledge creates an ongoing dialogue and connection between lessons of the day and experiential learning over time. Gadamer, in a late life interview, highlighted the open-endedness and ongoing nature of experiential learning in the following interview response:

Being experienced does not mean that one now knows something once and for all and becomes rigid in this knowledge; rather, one becomes more open to new experiences. A person who is experienced is undogmatic. Experience has the effect of freeing one to be open to new experience … In our experience we bring nothing to a close; we are constantly learning new things from our experience … this I call the interminability of all experience 32 (p. 403).

Practical endeavor, supported by scientific knowledge, requires experiential learning, the development of skilled know-how, and perceptual acuity in order to make the scientific knowledge relevant to the situation. Clinical perceptual and skilled know-how helps the practitioner discern when particular scientific findings might be relevant. 53

Often experience and knowledge, confirmed by experimentation, are treated as oppositions, an either-or choice. However, in practice it is readily acknowledged that experiential knowledge fuels scientific investigation, and scientific investigation fuels further experiential learning. Experiential learning from particular clinical cases can help the clinician recognize future similar cases and fuel new scientific questions and study. For example, less experienced nurses—and it could be argued experienced as well—can use nursing diagnoses practice guidelines as part of their professional advancement. Guidelines are used to reflect their interpretation of patients’ needs, responses, and situation, 54 a process that requires critical thinking and decisionmaking. 55 , 56 Using guidelines also reflects one’s problem identification and problem-solving abilities. 56 Conversely, the ability to proficiently conduct a series of tasks without nursing diagnoses is the hallmark of expertise. 39 , 57

Experience precedes expertise. As expertise develops from experience and gaining knowledge and transitions to the proficiency stage, the nurses’ thinking moves from steps and procedures (i.e., task-oriented care) toward “chunks” or patterns 39 (i.e., patient-specific care). In doing so, the nurse thinks reflectively, rather than merely accepting statements and performing procedures without significant understanding and evaluation. 34 Expert nurses do not rely on rules and logical thought processes in problem-solving and decisionmaking. 39 Instead, they use abstract principles, can see the situation as a complex whole, perceive situations comprehensively, and can be fully involved in the situation. 48 Expert nurses can perform high-level care without conscious awareness of the knowledge they are using, 39 , 58 and they are able to provide that care with flexibility and speed. Through a combination of knowledge and skills gained from a range of theoretical and experiential sources, expert nurses also provide holistic care. 39 Thus, the best care comes from the combination of theoretical, tacit, and experiential knowledge. 59 , 60

Experts are thought to eventually develop the ability to intuitively know what to do and to quickly recognize critical aspects of the situation. 22 Some have proposed that expert nurses provide high-quality patient care, 61 , 62 but that is not consistently documented—particularly in consideration of patient outcomes—and a full understanding between the differential impact of care rendered by an “expert” nurse is not fully understood. In fact, several studies have found that length of professional experience is often unrelated and even negatively related to performance measures and outcomes. 63 , 64

In a review of the literature on expertise in nursing, Ericsson and colleagues 65 found that focusing on challenging, less-frequent situations would reveal individual performance differences on tasks that require speed and flexibility, such as that experienced during a code or an adverse event. Superior performance was associated with extensive training and immediate feedback about outcomes, which can be obtained through continual training, simulation, and processes such as root-cause analysis following an adverse event. Therefore, efforts to improve performance benefited from continual monitoring, planning, and retrospective evaluation. Even then, the nurse’s ability to perform as an expert is dependent upon their ability to use intuition or insights gained through interactions with patients. 39

Intuition and Perception

Intuition is the instant understanding of knowledge without evidence of sensible thought. 66 According to Young, 67 intuition in clinical practice is a process whereby the nurse recognizes something about a patient that is difficult to verbalize. Intuition is characterized by factual knowledge, “immediate possession of knowledge, and knowledge independent of the linear reasoning process” 68 (p. 23). When intuition is used, one filters information initially triggered by the imagination, leading to the integration of all knowledge and information to problem solve. 69 Clinicians use their interactions with patients and intuition, drawing on tacit or experiential knowledge, 70 , 71 to apply the correct knowledge to make the correct decisions to address patient needs. Yet there is a “conflated belief in the nurses’ ability to know what is best for the patient” 72 (p. 251) because the nurses’ and patients’ identification of the patients’ needs can vary. 73

A review of research and rhetoric involving intuition by King and Appleton 62 found that all nurses, including students, used intuition (i.e., gut feelings). They found evidence, predominately in critical care units, that intuition was triggered in response to knowledge and as a trigger for action and/or reflection with a direct bearing on the analytical process involved in patient care. The challenge for nurses was that rigid adherence to checklists, guidelines, and standardized documentation, 62 ignored the benefits of intuition. This view was furthered by Rew and Barrow 68 , 74 in their reviews of the literature, where they found that intuition was imperative to complex decisionmaking, 68 difficult to measure and assess in a quantitative manner, and was not linked to physiologic measures. 74

Intuition is a way of explaining professional expertise. 75 Expert nurses rely on their intuitive judgment that has been developed over time. 39 , 76 Intuition is an informal, nonanalytically based, unstructured, deliberate calculation that facilitates problem solving, 77 a process of arriving at salient conclusions based on relatively small amounts of knowledge and/or information. 78 Experts can have rapid insight into a situation by using intuition to recognize patterns and similarities, achieve commonsense understanding, and sense the salient information combined with deliberative rationality. 10 Intuitive recognition of similarities and commonalities between patients are often the first diagnostic clue or early warning, which must then be followed up with critical evaluation of evidence among the competing conditions. This situation calls for intuitive judgment that can distinguish “expert human judgment from the decisions” made by a novice 79 (p. 23).

Shaw 80 equates intuition with direct perception. Direct perception is dependent upon being able to detect complex patterns and relationships that one has learned through experience are important. Recognizing these patterns and relationships generally occurs rapidly and is complex, making it difficult to articulate or describe. Perceptual skills, like those of the expert nurse, are essential to recognizing current and changing clinical conditions. Perception requires attentiveness and the development of a sense of what is salient. Often in nursing and medicine, means and ends are fused, as is the case for a “good enough” birth experience and a peaceful death.

  • Applying Practice Evidence

Research continues to find that using evidence-based guidelines in practice, informed through research evidence, improves patients’ outcomes. 81–83 Research-based guidelines are intended to provide guidance for specific areas of health care delivery. 84 The clinician—both the novice and expert—is expected to use the best available evidence for the most efficacious therapies and interventions in particular instances, to ensure the highest-quality care, especially when deviations from the evidence-based norm may heighten risks to patient safety. Otherwise, if nursing and medicine were exact sciences, or consisted only of techne, then a 1:1 relationship could be established between results of aggregated evidence-based research and the best path for all patients.

Evaluating Evidence

Before research should be used in practice, it must be evaluated. There are many complexities and nuances in evaluating the research evidence for clinical practice. Evaluation of research behind evidence-based medicine requires critical thinking and good clinical judgment. Sometimes the research findings are mixed or even conflicting. As such, the validity, reliability, and generalizability of available research are fundamental to evaluating whether evidence can be applied in practice. To do so, clinicians must select the best scientific evidence relevant to particular patients—a complex process that involves intuition to apply the evidence. Critical thinking is required for evaluating the best available scientific evidence for the treatment and care of a particular patient.

Good clinical judgment is required to select the most relevant research evidence. The best clinical judgment, that is, reasoning across time about the particular patient through changes in the patient’s concerns and condition and/or the clinician’s understanding, are also required. This type of judgment requires clinicians to make careful observations and evaluations of the patient over time, as well as know the patient’s concerns and social circumstances. To evolve to this level of judgment, additional education beyond clinical preparation if often required.

Sources of Evidence

Evidence that can be used in clinical practice has different sources and can be derived from research, patient’s preferences, and work-related experience. 85 , 86 Nurses have been found to obtain evidence from experienced colleagues believed to have clinical expertise and research-based knowledge 87 as well as other sources.

For many years now, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have often been considered the best standard for evaluating clinical practice. Yet, unless the common threats to the validity (e.g., representativeness of the study population) and reliability (e.g., consistency in interventions and responses of study participants) of RCTs are addressed, the meaningfulness and generalizability of the study outcomes are very limited. Relevant patient populations may be excluded, such as women, children, minorities, the elderly, and patients with multiple chronic illnesses. The dropout rate of the trial may confound the results. And it is easier to get positive results published than it is to get negative results published. Thus, RCTs are generalizable (i.e., applicable) only to the population studied—which may not reflect the needs of the patient under the clinicians care. In instances such as these, clinicians need to also consider applied research using prospective or retrospective populations with case control to guide decisionmaking, yet this too requires critical thinking and good clinical judgment.

Another source of available evidence may come from the gold standard of aggregated systematic evaluation of clinical trial outcomes for the therapy and clinical condition in question, be generated by basic and clinical science relevant to the patient’s particular pathophysiology or care need situation, or stem from personal clinical experience. The clinician then takes all of the available evidence and considers the particular patient’s known clinical responses to past therapies, their clinical condition and history, the progression or stages of the patient’s illness and recovery, and available resources.

In clinical practice, the particular is examined in relation to the established generalizations of science. With readily available summaries of scientific evidence (e.g., systematic reviews and practice guidelines) available to nurses and physicians, one might wonder whether deep background understanding is still advantageous. Might it not be expendable, since it is likely to be out of date given the current scientific evidence? But this assumption is a false opposition and false choice because without a deep background understanding, the clinician does not know how to best find and evaluate scientific evidence for the particular case in hand. The clinician’s sense of salience in any given situation depends on past clinical experience and current scientific evidence.

Evidence-Based Practice

The concept of evidence-based practice is dependent upon synthesizing evidence from the variety of sources and applying it appropriately to the care needs of populations and individuals. This implies that evidence-based practice, indicative of expertise in practice, appropriately applies evidence to the specific situations and unique needs of patients. 88 , 89 Unfortunately, even though providing evidence-based care is an essential component of health care quality, it is well known that evidence-based practices are not used consistently.

Conceptually, evidence used in practice advances clinical knowledge, and that knowledge supports independent clinical decisions in the best interest of the patient. 90 , 91 Decisions must prudently consider the factors not necessarily addressed in the guideline, such as the patient’s lifestyle, drug sensitivities and allergies, and comorbidities. Nurses who want to improve the quality and safety of care can do so though improving the consistency of data and information interpretation inherent in evidence-based practice.

Initially, before evidence-based practice can begin, there needs to be an accurate clinical judgment of patient responses and needs. In the course of providing care, with careful consideration of patient safety and quality care, clinicians must give attention to the patient’s condition, their responses to health care interventions, and potential adverse reactions or events that could harm the patient. Nonetheless, there is wide variation in the ability of nurses to accurately interpret patient responses 92 and their risks. 93 Even though variance in interpretation is expected, nurses are obligated to continually improve their skills to ensure that patients receive quality care safely. 94 Patients are vulnerable to the actions and experience of their clinicians, which are inextricably linked to the quality of care patients have access to and subsequently receive.

The judgment of the patient’s condition determines subsequent interventions and patient outcomes. Attaining accurate and consistent interpretations of patient data and information is difficult because each piece can have different meanings, and interpretations are influenced by previous experiences. 95 Nurses use knowledge from clinical experience 96 , 97 and—although infrequently—research. 98–100

Once a problem has been identified, using a process that utilizes critical thinking to recognize the problem, the clinician then searches for and evaluates the research evidence 101 and evaluates potential discrepancies. The process of using evidence in practice involves “a problem-solving approach that incorporates the best available scientific evidence, clinicians’ expertise, and patient’s preferences and values” 102 (p. 28). Yet many nurses do not perceive that they have the education, tools, or resources to use evidence appropriately in practice. 103

Reported barriers to using research in practice have included difficulty in understanding the applicability and the complexity of research findings, failure of researchers to put findings into the clinical context, lack of skills in how to use research in practice, 104 , 105 amount of time required to access information and determine practice implications, 105–107 lack of organizational support to make changes and/or use in practice, 104 , 97 , 105 , 107 and lack of confidence in one’s ability to critically evaluate clinical evidence. 108

When Evidence Is Missing

In many clinical situations, there may be no clear guidelines and few or even no relevant clinical trials to guide decisionmaking. In these cases, the latest basic science about cellular and genomic functioning may be the most relevant science, or by default, guestimation. Consequently, good patient care requires more than a straightforward, unequivocal application of scientific evidence. The clinician must be able to draw on a good understanding of basic sciences, as well as guidelines derived from aggregated data and information from research investigations.

Practical knowledge is shaped by one’s practice discipline and the science and technology relevant to the situation at hand. But scientific, formal, discipline-specific knowledge are not sufficient for good clinical practice, whether the discipline be law, medicine, nursing, teaching, or social work. Practitioners still have to learn how to discern generalizable scientific knowledge, know how to use scientific knowledge in practical situations, discern what scientific evidence/knowledge is relevant, assess how the particular patient’s situation differs from the general scientific understanding, and recognize the complexity of care delivery—a process that is complex, ongoing, and changing, as new evidence can overturn old.

Practice communities like individual practitioners may also be mistaken, as is illustrated by variability in practice styles and practice outcomes across hospitals and regions in the United States. This variability in practice is why practitioners must learn to critically evaluate their practice and continually improve their practice over time. The goal is to create a living self-improving tradition.

Within health care, students, scientists, and practitioners are challenged to learn and use different modes of thinking when they are conflated under one term or rubric, using the best-suited thinking strategies for taking into consideration the purposes and the ends of the reasoning. Learning to be an effective, safe nurse or physician requires not only technical expertise, but also the ability to form helping relationships and engage in practical ethical and clinical reasoning. 50 Good ethical comportment requires that both the clinician and the scientist take into account the notions of good inherent in clinical and scientific practices. The notions of good clinical practice must include the relevant significance and the human concerns involved in decisionmaking in particular situations, centered on clinical grasp and clinical forethought.

The Three Apprenticeships of Professional Education

We have much to learn in comparing the pedagogies of formation across the professions, such as is being done currently by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Carnegie Foundation’s broad research program on the educational preparation of the profession focuses on three essential apprenticeships:

To capture the full range of crucial dimensions in professional education, we developed the idea of a three-fold apprenticeship: (1) intellectual training to learn the academic knowledge base and the capacity to think in ways important to the profession; (2) a skill-based apprenticeship of practice; and (3) an apprenticeship to the ethical standards, social roles, and responsibilities of the profession, through which the novice is introduced to the meaning of an integrated practice of all dimensions of the profession, grounded in the profession’s fundamental purposes. 109

This framework has allowed the investigators to describe tensions and shortfalls as well as strengths of widespread teaching practices, especially at articulation points among these dimensions of professional training.

Research has demonstrated that these three apprenticeships are taught best when they are integrated so that the intellectual training includes skilled know-how, clinical judgment, and ethical comportment. In the study of nursing, exemplary classroom and clinical teachers were found who do integrate the three apprenticeships in all of their teaching, as exemplified by the following anonymous student’s comments:

With that as well, I enjoyed the class just because I do have clinical experience in my background and I enjoyed it because it took those practical applications and the knowledge from pathophysiology and pharmacology, and all the other classes, and it tied it into the actual aspects of like what is going to happen at work. For example, I work in the emergency room and question: Why am I doing this procedure for this particular patient? Beforehand, when I was just a tech and I wasn’t going to school, I’d be doing it because I was told to be doing it—or I’d be doing CPR because, you know, the doc said, start CPR. I really enjoy the Care and Illness because now I know the process, the pathophysiological process of why I’m doing it and the clinical reasons of why they’re making the decisions, and the prioritization that goes on behind it. I think that’s the biggest point. Clinical experience is good, but not everybody has it. Yet when these students transition from school and clinicals to their job as a nurse, they will understand what’s going on and why.

The three apprenticeships are equally relevant and intertwined. In the Carnegie National Study of Nursing Education and the companion study on medical education as well as in cross-professional comparisons, teaching that gives an integrated access to professional practice is being examined. Once the three apprenticeships are separated, it is difficult to reintegrate them. The investigators are encouraged by teaching strategies that integrate the latest scientific knowledge and relevant clinical evidence with clinical reasoning about particular patients in unfolding rather than static cases, while keeping the patient and family experience and concerns relevant to clinical concerns and reasoning.

Clinical judgment or phronesis is required to evaluate and integrate techne and scientific evidence.

Within nursing, professional practice is wise and effective usually to the extent that the professional creates relational and communication contexts where clients/patients can be open and trusting. Effectiveness depends upon mutual influence between patient and practitioner, student and learner. This is another way in which clinical knowledge is dialogical and socially distributed. The following articulation of practical reasoning in nursing illustrates the social, dialogical nature of clinical reasoning and addresses the centrality of perception and understanding to good clinical reasoning, judgment and intervention.

Clinical Grasp *

Clinical grasp describes clinical inquiry in action. Clinical grasp begins with perception and includes problem identification and clinical judgment across time about the particular transitions of particular patients. Garrett Chan 20 described the clinician’s attempt at finding an “optimal grasp” or vantage point of understanding. Four aspects of clinical grasp, which are described in the following paragraphs, include (1) making qualitative distinctions, (2) engaging in detective work, (3) recognizing changing relevance, and (4) developing clinical knowledge in specific patient populations.

Making Qualitative Distinctions

Qualitative distinctions refer to those distinctions that can be made only in a particular contextual or historical situation. The context and sequence of events are essential for making qualitative distinctions; therefore, the clinician must pay attention to transitions in the situation and judgment. Many qualitative distinctions can be made only by observing differences through touch, sound, or sight, such as the qualities of a wound, skin turgor, color, capillary refill, or the engagement and energy level of the patient. Another example is assessing whether the patient was more fatigued after ambulating to the bathroom or from lack of sleep. Likewise the quality of the clinician’s touch is distinct as in offering reassurance, putting pressure on a bleeding wound, and so on. 110

Engaging in Detective Work, Modus Operandi Thinking, and Clinical Puzzle Solving

Clinical situations are open ended and underdetermined. Modus operandi thinking keeps track of the particular patient, the way the illness unfolds, the meanings of the patient’s responses as they have occurred in the particular time sequence. Modus operandi thinking requires keeping track of what has been tried and what has or has not worked with the patient. In this kind of reasoning-in-transition, gains and losses of understanding are noticed and adjustments in the problem approach are made.

We found that teachers in a medical surgical unit at the University of Washington deliberately teach their students to engage in “detective work.” Students are given the daily clinical assignment of “sleuthing” for undetected drug incompatibilities, questionable drug dosages, and unnoticed signs and symptoms. For example, one student noted that an unusual dosage of a heart medication was being given to a patient who did not have heart disease. The student first asked her teacher about the unusually high dosage. The teacher, in turn, asked the student whether she had asked the nurse or the patient about the dosage. Upon the student’s questioning, the nurse did not know why the patient was receiving the high dosage and assumed the drug was for heart disease. The patient’s staff nurse had not questioned the order. When the student asked the patient, the student found that the medication was being given for tremors and that the patient and the doctor had titrated the dosage for control of the tremors. This deliberate approach to teaching detective work, or modus operandi thinking, has characteristics of “critical reflection,” but stays situated and engaged, ferreting out the immediate history and unfolding of events.

Recognizing Changing Clinical Relevance

The meanings of signs and symptoms are changed by sequencing and history. The patient’s mental status, color, or pain level may continue to deteriorate or get better. The direction, implication, and consequences for the changes alter the relevance of the particular facts in the situation. The changing relevance entailed in a patient transitioning from primarily curative care to primarily palliative care is a dramatic example, where symptoms literally take on new meanings and require new treatments.

Developing Clinical Knowledge in Specific Patient Populations

Extensive experience with a specific patient population or patients with particular injuries or diseases allows the clinician to develop comparisons, distinctions, and nuanced differences within the population. The comparisons between many specific patients create a matrix of comparisons for clinicians, as well as a tacit, background set of expectations that create population- and patient-specific detective work if a patient does not meet the usual, predictable transitions in recovery. What is in the background and foreground of the clinician’s attention shifts as predictable changes in the patient’s condition occurs, such as is seen in recovering from heart surgery or progressing through the predictable stages of labor and delivery. Over time, the clinician develops a deep background understanding that allows for expert diagnostic and interventions skills.

Clinical Forethought

Clinical forethought is intertwined with clinical grasp, but it is much more deliberate and even routinized than clinical grasp. Clinical forethought is a pervasive habit of thought and action in nursing practice, and also in medicine, as clinicians think about disease and recovery trajectories and the implications of these changes for treatment. Clinical forethought plays a role in clinical grasp because it structures the practical logic of clinicians. At least four habits of thought and action are evident in what we are calling clinical forethought: (1) future think, (2) clinical forethought about specific patient populations, (3) anticipation of risks for particular patients, and (4) seeing the unexpected.

Future think

Future think is the broadest category of this logic of practice. Anticipating likely immediate futures helps the clinician make good plans and decisions about preparing the environment so that responding rapidly to changes in the patient is possible. Without a sense of salience about anticipated signs and symptoms and preparing the environment, essential clinical judgments and timely interventions would be impossible in the typically fast pace of acute and intensive patient care. Future think governs the style and content of the nurse’s attentiveness to the patient. Whether in a fast-paced care environment or a slower-paced rehabilitation setting, thinking and acting with anticipated futures guide clinical thinking and judgment. Future think captures the way judgment is suspended in a predictive net of anticipation and preparing oneself and the environment for a range of potential events.

Clinical forethought about specific diagnoses and injuries

This habit of thought and action is so second nature to the experienced nurse that the new or inexperienced nurse may have difficulty finding out about what seems to other colleagues as “obvious” preparation for particular patients and situations. Clinical forethought involves much local specific knowledge about who is a good resource and how to marshal support services and equipment for particular patients.

Examples of preparing for specific patient populations are pervasive, such as anticipating the need for a pacemaker during surgery and having the equipment assembled ready for use to save essential time. Another example includes forecasting an accident victim’s potential injuries, and recognizing that intubation might be needed.

Anticipation of crises, risks, and vulnerabilities for particular patients

This aspect of clinical forethought is central to knowing the particular patient, family, or community. Nurses situate the patient’s problems almost like a topography of possibilities. This vital clinical knowledge needs to be communicated to other caregivers and across care borders. Clinical teaching could be improved by enriching curricula with narrative examples from actual practice, and by helping students recognize commonly occurring clinical situations in the simulation and clinical setting. For example, if a patient is hemodynamically unstable, then managing life-sustaining physiologic functions will be a main orienting goal. If the patient is agitated and uncomfortable, then attending to comfort needs in relation to hemodynamics will be a priority. Providing comfort measures turns out to be a central background practice for making clinical judgments and contains within it much judgment and experiential learning.

When clinical teaching is too removed from typical contingencies and strong clinical situations in practice, students will lack practice in active thinking-in-action in ambiguous clinical situations. In the following example, an anonymous student recounted her experiences of meeting a patient:

I was used to different equipment and didn’t know how things went, didn’t know their routine, really. You can explain all you want in class, this is how it’s going to be, but when you get there … . Kim was my first instructor and my patient that she assigned me to—I walked into the room and he had every tube imaginable. And so I was a little overwhelmed. It’s not necessarily even that he was that critical … . She asked what tubes here have you seen? Well, I know peripheral lines. You taught me PICC [peripherally inserted central catheter] lines, and we just had that, but I don’t really feel comfortable doing it by myself, without you watching to make sure that I’m flushing it right and how to assess it. He had a chest tube and I had seen chest tubes, but never really knew the depth of what you had to assess and how you make sure that it’s all kosher and whatever. So she went through the chest tube and explained, it’s just bubbling a little bit and that’s okay. The site, check the site. The site looked okay and that she’d say if it wasn’t okay, this is what it might look like … . He had a feeding tube. I had done feeding tubes but that was like a long time ago in my LPN experiences schooling. So I hadn’t really done too much with the feeding stuff either … . He had a [nasogastric] tube, and knew pretty much about that and I think at the time it was clamped. So there were no issues with the suction or whatever. He had a Foley catheter. He had a feeding tube, a chest tube. I can’t even remember but there were a lot.

As noted earlier, a central characteristic of a practice discipline is that a self-improving practice requires ongoing experiential learning. One way nurse educators can enhance clinical inquiry is by increasing pedagogies of experiential learning. Current pedagogies for experiential learning in nursing include extensive preclinical study, care planning, and shared postclinical debriefings where students share their experiential learning with their classmates. Experiential learning requires open learning climates where students can discuss and examine transitions in understanding, including their false starts, or their misconceptions in actual clinical situations. Nursing educators typically develop open and interactive clinical learning communities, so that students seem committed to helping their classmates learn from their experiences that may have been difficult or even unsafe. One anonymous nurse educator described how students extend their experiential learning to their classmates during a postclinical conference:

So for example, the patient had difficulty breathing and the student wanted to give the meds instead of addressing the difficulty of breathing. Well, while we were sharing information about their patients, what they did that day, I didn’t tell the student to say this, but she said, ‘I just want to tell you what I did today in clinical so you don’t do the same thing, and here’s what happened.’ Everybody’s listening very attentively and they were asking her some questions. But she shared that. She didn’t have to. I didn’t tell her, you must share that in postconference or anything like that, but she just went ahead and shared that, I guess, to reinforce what she had learned that day but also to benefit her fellow students in case that thing comes up with them.

The teacher’s response to this student’s honesty and generosity exemplifies her own approach to developing an open community of learning. Focusing only on performance and on “being correct” prevents learning from breakdown or error and can dampen students’ curiosity and courage to learn experientially.

Seeing the unexpected

One of the keys to becoming an expert practitioner lies in how the person holds past experiential learning and background habitual skills and practices. This is a skill of foregrounding attention accurately and effectively in response to the nature of situational demands. Bourdieu 29 calls the recognition of the situation central to practical reasoning. If nothing is routinized as a habitual response pattern, then practitioners will not function effectively in emergencies. Unexpected occurrences may be overlooked. However, if expectations are held rigidly, then subtle changes from the usual will be missed, and habitual, rote responses will inappropriately rule. The clinician must be flexible in shifting between what is in background and foreground. This is accomplished by staying curious and open. The clinical “certainty” associated with perceptual grasp is distinct from the kind of “certainty” achievable in scientific experiments and through measurements. Recognition of similar or paradigmatic clinical situations is similar to “face recognition” or recognition of “family resemblances.” This concept is subject to faulty memory, false associative memories, and mistaken identities; therefore, such perceptual grasp is the beginning of curiosity and inquiry and not the end. Assessment and validation are required. In rapidly moving clinical situations, perceptual grasp is the starting point for clarification, confirmation, and action. Having the clinician say out loud how he or she is understanding the situation gives an opportunity for confirmation and disconfirmation from other clinicians present. 111 The relationship between foreground and background of attention needs to be fluid, so that missed expectations allow the nurse to see the unexpected. For example, when the background rhythm of a cardiac monitor changes, the nurse notices, and what had been background tacit awareness becomes the foreground of attention. A hallmark of expertise is the ability to notice the unexpected. 20 Background expectations of usual patient trajectories form with experience. Tacit expectations for patient trajectories form that enable the nurse to notice subtle failed expectations and pay attention to early signs of unexpected changes in the patient's condition. Clinical expectations gained from caring for similar patient populations form a tacit clinical forethought that enable the experienced clinician to notice missed expectations. Alterations from implicit or explicit expectations set the stage for experiential learning, depending on the openness of the learner.

Learning to provide safe and quality health care requires technical expertise, the ability to think critically, experience, and clinical judgment. The high-performance expectation of nurses is dependent upon the nurses’ continual learning, professional accountability, independent and interdependent decisionmaking, and creative problem-solving abilities.

This section of the paper was condensed and paraphrased from Benner, Hooper-Kyriakidis, and Stannard. 23 Patricia Hooper-Kyriakidis wrote the section on clinical grasp, and Patricia Benner wrote the section on clinical forethought.

  • Cite this Page Benner P, Hughes RG, Sutphen M. Clinical Reasoning, Decisionmaking, and Action: Thinking Critically and Clinically. In: Hughes RG, editor. Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2008 Apr. Chapter 6.
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Advanced practice: critical thinking and clinical reasoning

Sadie Diamond-Fox

Senior Lecturer in Advanced Critical Care Practice, Northumbria University, Advanced Critical Care Practitioner, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and Co-Lead, Advanced Critical/Clinical Care Practitioners Academic Network (ACCPAN)

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Advanced Critical Care Practitioner, South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

critical thinking for nurses examples

Clinical reasoning is a multi-faceted and complex construct, the understanding of which has emerged from multiple fields outside of healthcare literature, primarily the psychological and behavioural sciences. The application of clinical reasoning is central to the advanced non-medical practitioner (ANMP) role, as complex patient caseloads with undifferentiated and undiagnosed diseases are now a regular feature in healthcare practice. This article explores some of the key concepts and terminology that have evolved over the last four decades and have led to our modern day understanding of this topic. It also considers how clinical reasoning is vital for improving evidence-based diagnosis and subsequent effective care planning. A comprehensive guide to applying diagnostic reasoning on a body systems basis will be explored later in this series.

The Multi-professional Framework for Advanced Clinical Practice highlights clinical reasoning as one of the core clinical capabilities for advanced clinical practice in England ( Health Education England (HEE), 2017 ). This is also identified in other specialist core capability frameworks and training syllabuses for advanced clinical practitioner (ACP) roles ( Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, 2018 ; Royal College of Emergency Medicine, 2019 ; HEE, 2020 ; HEE et al, 2020 ).

Rencic et al (2020) defined clinical reasoning as ‘a complex ability, requiring both declarative and procedural knowledge, such as physical examination and communication skills’. A plethora of literature exists surrounding this topic, with a recent systematic review identifying 625 papers, spanning 47 years, across the health professions ( Young et al, 2020 ). A diverse range of terms are used to refer to clinical reasoning within the healthcare literature ( Table 1 ), which can make defining their influence on their use within the clinical practice and educational arenas somewhat challenging.

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Clinical Reasoning In Nursing (Explained W/ Example)

Clinical Reasoning In Nursing-examples-critical-thinking

Last updated on August 19th, 2023

In this article, we will cover:

What is Clinical Reasoning?

Definition of clinical reasoning in nursing.

  • What is the concept of clinical reasoning?

Why is Clinical Reasoning Important in Nursing?

What are the types of clinical reasoning, what are the three elements of clinical reasoning, what are the steps of clinical reasoning, what is the importance of clinical reasoning and judgement in nursing, what is the difference between critical thinking and clinical reasoning, clinical reasoning in nursing example.

Clinical reasoning refers to the cognitive process that healthcare professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and other clinicians, use to analyze and make decisions about a patient’s condition and appropriate treatment.

It’s a complex and dynamic process that involves gathering and interpreting information from various sources, including patient history, physical examinations, laboratory tests, imaging studies, and the clinician’s own experience and knowledge.

Medicine, physical therapy, and occupational therapy were the first to introduce clinical reasoning to the healthcare disciplines. Since then, the nursing profession has used these strategies to improve patient care.

What is Clinical Reasoning in Nursing?

Clinical reasoning in nursing is dynamic and adaptive, as nurses continuously gather new information and adjust care plans based on patient responses.

It’s a crucial skill that guides nurses in providing safe, effective, and patient-centered care. Clinical reasoning involves the integration of clinical knowledge, critical thinking , and experience to address the complex and dynamic nature of patient situations.

It involves balancing medical knowledge with critical thinking , empathy, and ethical considerations to provide comprehensive and compassionate patient care.

Clinical reasoning in nursing refers to the cognitive process that nurses use to collect and assess patient information, analyze data, make informed judgments, and develop appropriate care plans.

What is the Concept of Clinical Reasoning?

Clinical reasoning is the cognitive process used by healthcare professionals to make informed decisions regarding patient care.

It encompasses tasks such as collecting information, analyzing data, identifying patterns, generating hypotheses, and making judgments for diagnosis and treatment.

Clinical reasoning blends science and intuition in medical practice. It combines evidence-based knowledge with experience-derived judgment to attain accurate diagnoses and treatments while addressing uncertainties.

As an essential component of clinical practice, clinical reasoning guides healthcare providers in delivering safe and effective patient care.

Clinical reasoning is important in nursing for several reasons. Some reasons are listed below.

Patient-Centered Care:

Clinical reasoning helps nurses tailor care plans to individual patients, considering their unique needs, preferences, and circumstances, leading to more personalized and effective care.

Safe and Effective Care:

It ensures that nurses make well-informed decisions based on thorough assessments, reducing the risk of errors and promoting patient safety.

Optimal Outcomes:

Through clinical reasoning, nurses can identify early signs of complications, make timely interventions, and contribute to better patient outcomes.

Nurtured Critical Thinking:

Clinical reasoning cultivates nurses’ critical thinking abilities, empowering them to dissect complex situations, appraise evidence, and make rational choices.

Efficient Resource Utilization:

It helps nurses prioritize care tasks, allocate resources effectively, and manage time efficiently, enhancing workflow and patient care delivery.

Evidence-Based Practice:

Nursing practice is constantly evolving with new research and evidence. Clinical reasoning involves integrating the latest evidence-based knowledge into decision-making, ensuring that care plans are aligned with the best available practices.

Complex Cases:

Nurses often encounter intricate patient cases; clinical reasoning equips them to navigate complexity, address multiple issues, and make comprehensive care plans.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration:

Effective clinical reasoning supports collaboration with other healthcare professionals, promoting well-rounded patient care.

Adaptation to Change:

In rapidly changing healthcare environments, clinical reasoning enables nurses to adapt to new information, technologies, and practices.

Critical Decision-Making:

Nurses face complex situations where quick and accurate decisions are critical. Clinical reasoning equips them with the ability to analyze data, identify patterns, and generate hypotheses. This enables nurses to make informed decisions about interventions, medications, and treatments, leading to effective care.

Early Detection and Prevention:

Through clinical reasoning, nurses can detect subtle changes in a patient’s condition that might signal complications or deterioration. This allows for early interventions, preventing potential health crises and improving patient prognosis.

Error Reduction:

Clinical reasoning encourages systematic thinking, reducing the likelihood of errors in administering medications, performing procedures, and assessing patients. This promotes patient safety and prevents adverse events.

Holistic Care:

Patient’s health is influenced by various factors beyond just medical conditions. Clinical reasoning enables nurses to consider the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of patients, promoting holistic care and overall well-being.

Ethical Dilemmas:

Nursing often involves ethical challenges. Clinical reasoning guides nurses in making ethically sound decisions by considering patients’ autonomy, values, and cultural beliefs.

Communication and Collaboration:

Clinical reasoning enhances nurses’ ability to communicate effectively with patients, families, and other healthcare professionals. It fosters collaboration by enabling nurses to articulate their assessments, interventions, and rationales clearly.

Professional Growth:

Developing strong clinical reasoning skills enhances nurses’ professional growth. It increases their confidence, competence, and ability to take on more complex patient cases and leadership roles.

In summary , clinical reasoning is an important component of nursing practice, allowing nurses to provide safe, effective, and patient-centered care.

It enables nurses to make informed decisions, improve patient outcomes, and navigate the dynamic and complex healthcare setting.

Clinical reasoning involves three key elements that healthcare professionals integrate to make informed decisions about patient care:

1. Patient Information:

This element encompasses all the relevant data about the patient’s medical history, current condition, symptoms, physical examination findings, diagnostic test results, and social and contextual factors.

Gathering comprehensive and accurate patient information is essential for forming an accurate understanding of the patient’s health status and needs.

2. Clinical Knowledge and Expertise:

Healthcare professionals draw upon their extensive medical knowledge, clinical experience, and expertise to interpret patient information.

This knowledge includes an understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, and medical guidelines.

Clinical expertise is built over years of practice, exposure to a variety of cases, and ongoing learning.

3. Critical Thinking and Decision-Making Skills:

Critical thinking involves the analytical and logical thought processes that healthcare professionals use to evaluate patient information in the context of their clinical knowledge.

It includes the ability to identify patterns, assess potential diagnoses, consider alternative explanations, and weigh the pros and cons of different treatment options.

Effective decision-making is the outcome of critical thinking , as healthcare professionals choose the most appropriate course of action based on the available information.

These three elements are interdependent and work together to form the foundation of clinical reasoning.

Healthcare professionals integrate patient information with their clinical knowledge and expertise while applying critical thinking skills to reach accurate diagnoses, develop effective treatment plans, and provide high-quality patient care.

The balance between these elements varies based on the complexity of the clinical situation and the healthcare provider’s level of experience and expertise.

8 Stages of the Clinical Reasoning Cycle

Clinical reasoning involves several key steps:

1. Data Collection: Gathering relevant information about the patient’s medical history, symptoms, physical examination findings, and any diagnostic tests that have been conducted.

2. Pattern Recognition: Recognizing patterns and relationships in the collected data to identify potential diagnoses or issues. This involves comparing the patient’s presentation to previous cases and medical knowledge.

3. Hypothesis Generation: Formulating hypotheses or possible explanations for the patient’s condition based on the patterns and information observed. This step often involves generating a list of potential diagnoses that fit the available evidence.

4. Differential Diagnosis: Narrowing down the list of potential diagnoses by considering the likelihood of each condition and ruling out less likely options. This is where critical thinking and medical knowledge come into play.

5. Testing and Validation: Ordering further diagnostic tests or investigations to confirm or rule out specific diagnoses. This could include blood tests, imaging studies, biopsies, or other procedures.

6. Synthesis: Integrating the results of diagnostic tests and additional information to refine the diagnosis and treatment plan. This may involve adjusting the initial hypotheses based on new data.

7. Treatment Planning: Developing a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses the diagnosed condition, the patient’s unique circumstances, preferences, and any potential risks or benefits of various treatment options.

8. Monitoring and Adaptation: Continuously monitoring the patient’s progress and adjusting the treatment plan as needed based on how the patient responds and any new information that emerges.

Clinical reasoning requires a deep understanding of medical science, anatomy, physiology, and pathology, as well as the ability to apply this knowledge to real-world clinical scenarios.

It also involves critical thinking skills , logical reasoning, and the ability to handle uncertainty, as medical situations can be complex and patients may present with atypical symptoms.

Overall, clinical reasoning is a crucial skill for healthcare professionals, as it forms the foundation for making accurate diagnoses and providing effective patient care.

Clinical reasoning and judgment are of paramount importance in nursing for several reasons:

  • Accurate Diagnosis and Treatment: Effective clinical reasoning enables nurses to accurately assess patients’ conditions, identify potential problems, and make informed decisions about appropriate interventions and treatments. Accurate diagnosis and treatment are crucial for improving patient outcomes and preventing complications.
  • Patient Safety: Sound clinical judgment helps nurses recognize potential risks and make timely interventions to ensure patient safety. By identifying early signs of deterioration or complications, nurses can take appropriate actions to prevent adverse events.
  • Individualized Care: Clinical reasoning allows nurses to tailor care plans to each patient’s unique needs, preferences, and circumstances. This patient-centered approach improves patient satisfaction and contributes to better treatment outcomes.
  • Early Detection of Changes: Nurses often spend the most time with patients, which puts them in a prime position to notice subtle changes in a patient’s condition. Strong clinical reasoning skills enable nurses to detect these changes early and respond appropriately.
  • Effective Communication: Nurses with strong clinical reasoning skills can communicate more effectively with patients, families, and interdisciplinary healthcare teams. They can convey complex medical information, treatment plans, and concerns in a clear and organized manner.
  • Ethical Decision-Making: Clinical reasoning includes ethical considerations in decision-making. Nurses must weigh the ethical implications of their actions and decisions, especially when faced with complex situations that involve moral dilemmas.
  • Resource Utilization: Effective clinical reasoning helps nurses allocate resources efficiently. By accurately assessing patient needs and prioritizing care, nurses can optimize the use of time, personnel, and equipment.
  • Adaptation to Change: Healthcare is dynamic, and patients’ conditions can change rapidly. Nurses with strong clinical reasoning skills can adapt quickly to changing situations, making necessary adjustments to care plans and interventions.
  • Continuity of Care: Nurses often play a critical role in ensuring continuity of care as patients transition between different healthcare settings. Effective clinical reasoning facilitates clear communication of patient information and ensures a smooth transition of care.
  • Professional Growth: Developing clinical reasoning and judgment skills enhances a nurse’s professional growth. These skills are transferrable and applicable across various healthcare settings, allowing nurses to provide high-quality care regardless of the environment.
  • Confidence and Job Satisfaction: Nurses who feel confident in their clinical reasoning abilities experience greater job satisfaction. Confidence comes from knowing that decisions are based on a solid foundation of knowledge, experience, and critical thinking.
  • Advocacy: Nurses with strong clinical reasoning skills can effectively advocate for their patients, ensuring that their needs are met, their voices are heard, and their rights are respected within the healthcare system.
  • Quality Improvement: Clinical reasoning plays a role in quality improvement efforts by identifying areas for improvement in patient care processes and outcomes.

In summary, clinical reasoning and judgment are essential for nurses to provide safe, effective, and patient-centered care.

These skills underpin the entire nursing process, enabling nurses to make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and positively impact patient outcomes and experiences.

Critical Thinking :

Critical thinking is a cognitive process that involves analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information, ideas, and arguments to make reasoned judgments and decisions.

It is a broader skill applicable to various aspects of life and professions, encouraging logical, evidence-based thinking and minimizing biases.

Critical thinking aims to enhance problem-solving, decision-making, and analytical abilities in a wide range of contexts beyond healthcare.

Clinical Reasoning:

Clinical reasoning, on the other hand, is a specialized form of critical thinking that is primarily focused on healthcare and clinical situations.

It specifically pertains to the cognitive process healthcare professionals, especially nurses and doctors, use to collect, assess, analyze, and apply information to make informed clinical judgments and decisions.

Clinical reasoning is crucial for providing safe and effective patient care, as it integrates medical knowledge, patient assessments, ethical considerations, and treatment planning.

Critical Thinking vs. Clinical Reasoning

The ability to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize information, ideas, and arguments to make reasoned judgments and decisions.The cognitive process of collecting, assessing, analyzing, and applying information to make informed clinical judgments and decisions.
Broadly applicable to various aspects of life and professions.Primarily focused on healthcare and clinical situations.
Applied to diverse contexts and disciplines.Applied specifically to patient care scenarios, diagnostics, and treatment planning in healthcare.
Applies beyond the clinical setting.Primarily relevant within the healthcare context.
Enhances general problem-solving, decision-making, and analytical skills.Supports safe and effective patient care by integrating medical knowledge, assessments, and ethical considerations.
Can be developed and honed through practice, reflection, and exposure to various ideas.Developed through clinical experience, education, and applying knowledge to actual patient cases.
Evaluating the credibility of news sources, identifying fallacies in arguments, and analyzing the pros and cons of an issue.Diagnosing a patient’s condition based on symptom presentation, medical history, and diagnostic tests.
Encourages logical, evidence-based thinking, minimizing bias, and informed decision-making.Leads to appropriate and well-informed interventions, improved patient outcomes, and enhanced patient safety.

Clinical reasoning can be categorized into different types or approaches. Each of which represents a particular way of thinking and making decisions in clinical practice.

Some of the commonly recognized types of clinical reasoning include:

  • Deductive Reasoning: This type of reasoning starts with a general principle or theory and applies it to a specific case. Healthcare professionals use deductive reasoning to make predictions or decisions based on established medical knowledge. For example, if a patient presents with a set of symptoms consistent with a well-known disease, the clinician may deduce that the patient likely has that disease.
  • Inductive Reasoning: In contrast to deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning involves making generalizations or conclusions based on specific observations or cases. Clinicians use inductive reasoning to form hypotheses or theories from individual patient experiences. For instance, a nurse may notice a pattern of symptoms in several patients and develop a hypothesis about a potential new condition.
  • Abductive Reasoning: Abductive reasoning combines elements of both deductive and inductive reasoning. It involves making educated guesses or hypotheses to explain observations or data that don’t fit neatly into established patterns. Clinicians use abductive reasoning when they encounter cases that don’t seem to fit existing diagnoses or models, and they generate plausible explanations to guide further investigation.
  • Analytical Reasoning: This type of reasoning involves systematically breaking down a complex situation or problem into smaller parts to understand its components and relationships. Healthcare professionals use analytical reasoning to dissect complex patient cases, focusing on details and relationships to arrive at a diagnosis or treatment plan.
  • Intuitive Reasoning: Intuitive reasoning relies on a healthcare professional’s experience, intuition, and gut feeling. It involves drawing on one’s own clinical experience and recognizing patterns that may not be immediately apparent. Intuitive reasoning is often employed in situations where rapid decision-making is necessary.
  • Procedural Reasoning: Procedural reasoning focuses on the steps or processes needed to manage a clinical situation. It involves thinking about the sequence of actions required to address a patient’s needs. For example, a nurse may use procedural reasoning when administering medications, performing wound care, or carrying out other routine clinical procedures.
  • Narrative Reasoning: Narrative reasoning involves considering the patient’s story, values, and context as essential components of clinical decision-making. It emphasizes understanding the patient’s perspective and tailoring care plans to the individual’s unique circumstances.
  • Hypothetico-Deductive Reasoning: This approach involves generating and testing hypotheses systematically to arrive at a diagnosis. Healthcare professionals consider various possible diagnoses, then order specific tests to confirm or rule out each hypothesis.
  • Pattern Recognition Reasoning: This type of reasoning relies on recognizing familiar patterns based on clinical experience and knowledge. Healthcare providers quickly identify common clinical presentations and apply established treatment protocols.

Emily Davis, a 68-year-old woman, is admitted to the medical unit with a diagnosis of Acute Exacerbation of COPD. She has a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and has been experiencing increased shortness of breath, cough, and decreased oxygen saturation levels.

How does your understanding of nursing fundamentals influence your clinical reasoning?

Nursing Action:

• Reflect on the nursing care provided to patients with COPD and respiratory distress.

• Review the pharmacologic treatments that will improve the patient’s COPD.

• Reflect the non-pharmacologic measures that will help to improve the patient’s respiratory distress.

• Determine the most appropriate assessments and interventions for managing respiratory distress in patients with COPD.

Implementation of Interventions:

• Assess Emily’s respiratory rate, depth, and effort, as well as oxygen saturation levels.

• Administer prescribed bronchodilators, and nebulization to improve airway patency.

• Elevate the head of the bed to promote better lung expansion.

• Encourage deep breathing exercises and effective coughing techniques.

• Consult with the physician to determine pharmacologic therapy

• Monitor Emily’s response to interventions and adjust care as needed. How does your understanding of pathophysiology guide your clinical reasoning?

• Knowledge of COPD’s pathophysiology helps anticipate complications and tailor interventions.

In this scenario, the nurse’s grasp of nursing fundamentals enables them to provide appropriate care for a patient with COPD.

By considering the patient’s history and symptoms, the nurse takes action to manage respiratory distress.

Implementing interventions such as bronchodilators and elevation of the head of the bed aligns with nursing knowledge.

Additionally, understanding the pathophysiology of COPD aids in predicting potential complications and choosing interventions to support the patient’s respiratory function.

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Clinical reasoning in nursing involves the skillful integration of medical knowledge, critical thinking , and patient assessment to make informed decisions about patient care.

It enables nurses to provide safe, effective, and patient-centered interventions while considering individual needs and complex healthcare situations.

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Effects of Blended Simulation on Nursing Students' Critical Thinking Skills: A Quantitative Study

Affiliations.

  • 1 Faculty of Caring Sciences, Work Life and Social Welfare, University of Borås, Borås, Sweden.
  • 2 Centre for Prehospital Research, Faculty of Caring Science, Work Life and Social Welfare, University of Borås, Borås, Sweden.
  • 3 Centre of Interprofessional Cooperation within Emergency Care (CICE), Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden.
  • 4 Department of Health and Caring Sciences, Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden.
  • PMID: 37223219
  • PMCID: PMC10201174
  • DOI: 10.1177/23779608231177566

Introduction: Critical thinking is regarded as imperative to healthcare quality and patient outcomes; therefore, effective strategies in nursing education are required to promote students' critical thinking abilities, leading to their success in clinical work. Accordingly, simulation-based education has been suggested as a measure for achieving this goal.

Objective: The aim of this study was to explore whether a nursing education course with blended simulation activities (hands-on simulations with high-fidelity manikins and a web-based interactive simulation program) could increase nursing students' critical thinking skills.

Method: A quasiexperimental, one-group pretest and post-test design was utilized. Data were collected through premeasurement and postmeasurement using a critical thinking questionnaire and were analyzed using paired sample t -tests, independent sample t -tests, and the nonparametric Wilcoxon signed-rank test. The effect size was calculated using Cohen's d formula.

Results: Sixty-one nursing students (57 women and four men, mean age 30 years) participated in the study. Findings of the paired sample t -test showed a significantly higher mean score for posteducation than pre-education, indicating a significant change in nurses' critical thinking capabilities ( p < .001). The results for Cohen's d formula ( - 0.87) of the mean scores between pre-education and posteducation indicated a large effect size. The Wilcoxon signed-rank test also showed a statistically significant increase in the students' critical thinking abilities between pre-education and posteducation measures ( p < .001). No statistically significant differences were found in the mean score according to age or sex.

Conclusion: This study concluded that blended simulation-based education can increase nursing students' critical thinking capabilities. As a result, this study builds on the use of simulation as a measure for developing and promoting critical thinking abilities during nursing education.

Keywords: blended simulation; critical thinking; education; nursing education research; simulation training.

© The Author(s) 2023.

PubMed Disclaimer

Conflict of interest statement

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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