A Nurse at a Desk that is Critical Thinking
Career Development Updated December 28, 2022

By Brook Jillings, Contributor

Critical Thinking in Nursing: Why It's Important and How to Improve

Critical thinking in nursing is a learned skill that increases the quality of care given to patients and improves outcomes. It helps nurses fulfill their duties of advocating for patient safety, and helps everyone on the medical team function at their best. Find out why critical thinking is important and learn five ways to improve with examples of critical thinking in nursing.

To put your critical thinking skills to use, check out the travel nursing positions available with American Mobile.

Steps for Thinking Critically as a Nurse

To be an effective nurse, it's important to step back and see the bigger picture. Critical thinking in nursing helps you analyze your patient's condition and current treatments to predict outcomes and identify potential issues. Hahnah Williams, Esq., RN, says, "Nurses who think critically do a better job of communicating across disciplines to ensure that all providers are aware of the patient's status, needs, and responses to treatment."

Being a strong critical thinker can greatly impact the experiences of your patients and enhance patient safety. Williams gives an example of this: "A critically thinking nurse will hold a patient's blood pressure medicines and contact the physician when he or she notes that the patient's blood pressure is below an acceptable level."

In contrast, a lack of critical thinking skills could put a patient in this situation in jeopardy by allowing the blood pressure to continue falling.

Nurses who are critical thinkers can best advocate for their patients: analyzing and evaluating facts in order to make a sound, evidence-based judgment. They should then speak up when necessary, and not just blindly follow orders."Nurses are often at the front line of patient care and serve as quarterbacks for patients with multi-disciplinary needs," Williams states.

1. Be aware of personal bias and assumptions

Human beings tend to allow personal bias to affect their decisions, and critical thinking in nursing could be compromised. "Take a look at how you think," says Barb Lundy, author of Connections Count: Mastering the Human Side of Business. "Do hidden values or beliefs drive your behavior?" Some examples she gives of this include the belief that communicating with elderly patients is more difficult, or that parents will make unreasonable demands for their children's care.

Making assumptions can also be an issue. "Medical treatment relies on educated assumptions," Lundy explains. "Assumptions that send problem-solving off in the wrong direction come from not asking enough questions." She offers the following tips to keep nurses on the right path:

  • Collaborate with your team
  • Clarify any orders
  • Ask for help when you aren't sure
  • Offer to help others on your team
  • Take time to communicate with your patients

It's important to make sure any actions you take are evidence-based and not influenced by your personal feelings, or, as Lundy says, "Know where fact ends and opinion begins."

2. Learn from all available resources

Take time to read nursing journals and peer-reviewed research, and engage in meaningful dialogue with your colleagues. Critical thinking in nursing requires familiarity with a range of medical conditions and procedures. Continually brushing up on your knowledge will help you identify connections in your patients' care and know how to address any issues.

Dr. Joyce Mikal-Flynn, a nurse practitioner and professor at the Sacramento State University School of Nursing, says, "On a regular basis, I spend time with associates reviewing diagnoses and treatment and making certain I am utilizing the most discerning evidence and up-to-date treatments."

Mikal-Flynn claims these efforts strengthen the team and "directly adds to and enhances critical thinking abilities." Spending time communicating with your peers can give you different perspectives while strengthening the relationship between you and the attending physicians. Keeping up with the latest medical findings and nursing care models will also keep your knowledge current and your skills ahead of the curve.

3. Reflect on each day

At the end of each nursing shift, take some time to reflect on the day's events. There will always be situations you could have approached differently or better solutions to the problems you faced, so it's important to go through those things to see where you can improve. Mikal-Flynn recommends you take time to review "your clinical day, what went well, what would you change, what do you need to improve your professional behavior and become more sophisticated in your thinking process."

Going over your decisions and interactions lets you analyze them in a low-pressure setting with a critical eye. Finding things you could have done differently helps you make better decisions in the future when faced with similar scenarios. Lundy also suggests, "Have an evaluation tool that helps you assess your critical thinking growth and development."

4. Practice critical thinking daily

Critical thinking in nursing is a skill that can be learned and improved, so make sure you're enhancing your skills daily using the tools available to you. "Utilizing clinical debriefing is essential," says Mikal-Flynn. "It is a time to pull apart clinical decisions and add, subtract and enhance content."

You can also practice your critical thinking skills outside of the workplace. The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers nine suggestions to develop your critical thinking strategy that include daily, weekly and monthly goals for personal growth, along with tools and tips to create better self-awareness.

5. Maintain flexibility

Finally, a good critical thinker will maintain flexibility. Critical thinking in nursing requires the ability to adapt to changing situations and share information. "Plan ahead knowing your plans will need adjustment as things change," suggests Lundy. "Listen to alternative ideas and approaches and offer your innovative ideas for problem-solving."

Nursing is a fast-paced profession that requires a unique approach to each patient. With so many variables that affect each case, you have to be willing to consider different perspectives to serve your patients well.

Improve critical thinking skills to be a better nurse

Critical thinking in nursing is a valuable skill that can greatly improve the care you provide to your patients. If you take the time to follow these five tips to improve your critical thinking skills, your reward will be better outcomes for your patients and more confidence in your abilities as a nurse.

Thinking about traveling? American Mobile is recruiting talented and dedicated nurses for travel nursing assignments across the U.S.

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