Why Critical Thinking Skills in Nursing Matter (And What You Can Do to Develop Them)

Critical Thinking in Nursing

The nursing profession tends to attract those who have natural nurturing abilities, a desire to help others, and a knack for science or anatomy. But there is another important skill that successful nurses share, and it's often overlooked: the ability to think critically.

Identifying a problem, determining the best solution and choosing the most effective method to solve the program are all parts of the critical thinking process. After executing the plan, critical thinkers reflect on the situation to figure out if it was effective and if it could have been done better. As you can see, critical thinking is a transferable skill that can be leveraged in several facets of your life.

But why is it so important for nurses to use? We spoke with several experts to learn why critical thinking skills in nursing are so crucial to the field, the patients and the success of a nurse. Keep reading to learn why and to see how you can improve this skill.

Why are critical thinking skills in nursing important?

You learn all sorts of practical skills in nursing school, like flawlessly dressing a wound, taking vitals like a pro or starting an IV without flinching. But without the ability to think clearly and make rational decisions, those skills alone won’t get you very far—you need to think critically as well.

“Nurses are faced with decision-making situations in patient care, and each decision they make impacts patient outcomes. Nursing critical thinking skills drive the decision-making process and impact the quality of care provided,” says Georgia Vest, DNP, RN and senior dean of nursing at the Rasmussen University School of Nursing.

For example, nurses often have to make triage decisions in the emergency room. With an overflow of patients and limited staff, they must evaluate which patients should be treated first. While they rely on their training to measure vital signs and level of consciousness, they must use critical thinking to analyze the consequences of delaying treatment in each case.

No matter which department they work in, nurses use critical thinking in their everyday routines. When you’re faced with decisions that could ultimately mean life or death, the ability to analyze a situation and come to a solution separates the good nurses from the great ones.

How are critical thinking skills acquired in nursing school?

Nursing school offers a multitude of material to master and upholds high expectations for your performance. But in order to learn in a way that will actually equip you to become an excellent nurse, you have to go beyond just memorizing terms. You need to apply an analytical mindset to understanding course material.

One way for students to begin implementing critical thinking is by applying the nursing process to their line of thought, according to Vest. The process includes five steps: assessment, diagnosis, outcomes/planning, implementation and evaluation.

“One of the fundamental principles for developing critical thinking is the nursing process,” Vest says. “It needs to be a lived experience in the learning environment.”

Nursing students often find that there are multiple correct solutions to a problem. The key to nursing is to select the “the most correct” solution—one that will be the most efficient and best fit for that particular situation. Using the nursing process, students can narrow down their options to select the best one.

When answering questions in class or on exams, challenge yourself to go beyond simply selecting an answer. Start to think about why that answer is correct and what the possible consequences might be. Simply memorizing the material won’t translate well into a real-life nursing setting.

How can you develop your critical thinking skills as a nurse?

As you know, learning doesn’t stop with graduation from nursing school. Good nurses continue to soak up knowledge and continually improve throughout their careers. Likewise, they can continue to build their critical thinking skills in the workplace with each shift.

“To improve your critical thinking, pick the brains of the experienced nurses around you to help you get the mindset,” suggests Eileen Sollars, RN ADN, AAS. Understanding how a seasoned nurse came to a conclusion will provide you with insights you may not have considered and help you develop your own approach.

The chain of command can also help nurses develop critical thinking skills in the workplace.

“Another aid in the development of critical thinking I cannot stress enough is the utilization of the chain of command,” Vest says. “In the chain of command, the nurse always reports up to the nurse manager and down to the patient care aide. Peers and fellow healthcare professionals are not in the chain of command. Clear understanding and proper utilization of the chain of command is essential in the workplace.”

How are critical thinking skills applied in nursing?

“Nurses use critical thinking in every single shift,” Sollars says. “Critical thinking in nursing is a paramount skill necessary in the care of your patients. Nowadays there is more emphasis on machines and technical aspects of nursing, but critical thinking plays an important role. You need it to understand and anticipate changes in your patient's condition.”

As a nurse, you will inevitably encounter a situation in which there are multiple solutions or treatments, and you'll be tasked with determining the solution that will provide the best possible outcome for your patient. You must be able to quickly and confidently assess situations and make the best care decision in each unique scenario. It is in situations like these that your critical thinking skills will direct your decision-making.

Do critical thinking skills matter more for nursing leadership and management positions?

While critical thinking skills are essential at every level of nursing, leadership and management positions require a new level of this ability.

When it comes to managing other nurses, working with hospital administration, and dealing with budgets, schedules or policies, critical thinking can make the difference between a smooth-running or struggling department. At the leadership level, nurses need to see the big picture and understand how each part works together.

A nurse manager, for example, might have to deal with being short-staffed. This could require coaching nurses on how to prioritize their workload, organize their tasks and rely on strategies to keep from burning out. A lead nurse with strong critical thinking skills knows how to fully understand the problem and all its implications.

  • How will patient care be affected by having fewer staff?
  • What kind of strain will be on the nurses?

Their solutions will take into account all their resources and possible roadblocks.

  • What work can be delegated to nursing aids?
  • Are there any nurses willing to come in on their day off?
  • Are nurses from other departments available to provide coverage?

They’ll weigh the pros and cons of each solution and choose those with the greatest potential.

  • Will calling in an off-duty nurse contribute to burnout?
  • Was this situation a one-off occurrence or something that could require an additional hire in the long term?

Finally, they will look back on the issue and evaluate what worked and what didn’t. With critical thinking skills like this, a lead nurse can affect their entire staff, patient population and department for the better.

Beyond thinking

You’re now well aware of the importance of critical thinking skills in nursing. Even if you already use critical thinking skills every day, you can still work toward strengthening that skill. The more you practice it, the better you will become and the more naturally it will come to you.

If you’re interested in critical thinking because you’d like to move up in your current nursing job, consider how a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) could help you develop the necessary leadership skills. Learn more about earning your BSN in our article “How an RN to BSN Program Will Differ from Your ADN Experience.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in July 2012. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2021.

Hannah Meinke

Hannah Meinke is a writer at Collegis Education. She enjoys helping people discover their purpose and passion by crafting education and career-related content on behalf of Rasmussen University.

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