Nurses work on the front lines of patient care, monitoring for changes, updating care regimens, and making diagnoses constantly. Problem-solving is deeply ingrained into the work of any medical professional, especially a nurse. They’re often the first to handle stressful situations that arise with a patient, and responsible for guiding that patient’s family through every step of what is happening to them. Nurses absolutely must be able to think on their feet, and the best way to improve one’s ability to problem solve is to think critically.

Anyone can benefit from the kind of mental exercise that builds critical thinking skills, but here we’ll specifically cover the benefits of critical thinking in nursing. We’ll examine some of the categories the critical thinking process can be divided into and go over some examples of how that skill set can be used in the life of a nurse.

The Role of Critical Thinking in Nursing

First things first: what exactly is critical thinking? We hear the term so often that many of us are probably certain we know what it means, but a group of educators narrowed down an exact definition in 1987. A paper written that year by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul states:

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

In the nursing world, critical thinking is an intentional, process based on logic and evidence, that leads to better patient outcomes. Minority Nurse magazine described it like this, citing a study from 2010:

“Critical thinking involves interpretation and analysis of the problem, reasoning to find a solution, applying, and finally evaluation of the outcomes.”

A study published in the Journal of Nursing Education in 2000 took this even further, dividing up the process of critical thinking as a nurse into seven essential “cognitive components” of the critical thinking process in nursing, and the 10 mental habits conducive to that process. The study, called A Consensus Statement on Critical Thinking in Nursing, identified the following seven skills as key:

  1. Analyzing
  2. Applying standards
  3. Discriminating
  4. Information-seeking
  5. Logical reasoning
  6. Predicting
  7. Transforming knowledge

The development of one’s mental skills relies on both past experience and the willingness to push the boundaries of accepted knowledge. Required to make a snap decision in the moment, nurses must be able to know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to taking care of their patients while also keeping their minds open to new possibilities. The “crash cart” for patient resuscitation and color-coded IV lines to prevent medication mix-ups are fixtures of the medical world now, but they never would’ve been if their inventors fell victim to the belief that “we’ve always done it this way, so it must be best.”

One study found that nurses with more developed critical thinking skills made better decisions in the ER and are more likely to be able to handle the changing nature of their work. They were also better communicators, getting necessary information to the rest of their team efficiently and allowing for better patient care.

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How Critical Thinking Impacts Nursing

Onward Healthcare outlines seven ways that critical thinking can impact the life of a nurse in a blog post, and why they’re important to know. We’ll go through them briefly here, starting with the first.

  1. Patient care. Complying with safety standards, correct interpretation of data, and diagnostic skills all have an impact on the patients that nurses treat, and all can be improved through a good foundation in critical thinking.
  2. Recognizing subtle changes in patient status. Building on the first reason, a nurse can leverage analytic skills and past experience to recognize whether a patient’s complaints are symptoms of deeper trouble.
  3. Promoting the open and efficient exchange of ideas. Nurses must be able to map out their diagnoses and effectively explain them to the RN or doctor on duty.
  4. Ensuring patient safety. Going back to patient care, a nurse should be aware of factors like a patient’s religious affiliation and medication sensitivities when deciding how to treat them.
  5. Solving problems faster. Critical thinking skills help a nurse troubleshoot problems with a greater degree of skill when the tried-and-true methods of care don’t work.
  6. Fostering innovation and improvement. As we said earlier, critical thinking skills can help a nurse think outside the box and see what needs to be done. The world of medicine is evolving day to day and week to week and knowing how to connect the dots others don’t see is vital to taking the next step forward.
  7. Improved decision-making. From the ER to the NICU to assisted living, snap decisions are a part of a nurse’s job. The more practice they have thinking through difficult situations, and the more experience and knowledge they must draw upon, the better decisions they will make.
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