The Importance of Critical Thinking in Nursing: Enhancing Decision-Making Skills

Nurse Holding Tablet

Modern nursing presents its fair share of hardships, but nurses enjoy great respect and the simple reward of knowing they make a difference, too. Top career challenges stem, in part, from the sheer variety of tasks nurses handle, not to mention the many settings in which they work and the different types of patients they help.

From assessment to care plans to patient education, nurses must draw not only on their extensive clinical knowledge but also a wide range of soft skills that allow them to plan their day, communicate with patients, and find viable solutions as they handle all kinds of complex situations. One of the most essential yet difficult-to-develop skills? Critical thinking.

Aspiring healthcare professionals might wonder, then: Why is critical thinking important for nurses? We answer this common question below while touching on barriers to critical thinking for nurses—and opportunities to break through these roadblocks.

Why Do Nurses Need to Be Able to Think Critically?

Nursing is a dynamic and demanding field, presenting scenarios that are hard to anticipate. To do their jobs effectively, nurses must make sense of a wealth of information while also abiding by industry best practices and maintaining a high standard of care.[1]

Balancing all this calls for critical thinking: the ability to synthesize information from several sources, including foundational frameworks, cutting-edge research, and feedback from fellow clinical professionals and patients. If nurses cannot think critically, they will not know what to do with all this information or how to make decisions that promote positive patient outcomes.[2]

Handle Various Situations

Every day brings new and uniquely complex challenges to the healthcare environment. Though this keeps nurses engaged, there is no room for working on autopilot. Rather, every situation must be carefully thought through to ensure all patient signs and symptoms are observed, details are recorded properly for billing purposes, and the nurse’s bedside manner remains impeccable.

With so much to consider, it is understandable that nurses (especially new or aspiring nurses) may struggle to handle so many sources of information. This is where highly developed critical thinking comes into play; while extensive stimuli may initially seem like barriers to critical thinking, they can actually provide valuable insight and lead to excellent decision-making, so long as nurses have mastered skills such as synthesis and prioritization.

When nurses can efficiently absorb and interpret information, they are better equipped to navigate the many different scenarios they may encounter in a typical day, without relying entirely on regimented processes or instructions from others. As a result, nurses are better positioned to exhibit autonomy, but within the scope of their defined roles or levels of nursing.

Pivot With Change

Today’s nurses need to be highly adaptable. The healthcare environment is constantly changing, with new research, tools, technologies, and responsibilities shaping the nursing career path in ways that can be difficult to anticipate. These changes emerge on a near-daily basis, and if nurses struggle to adjust accordingly, previously manageable tasks may come to feel overwhelming.[3]

Agility is a must in modern nursing, and it can be achieved through the power of critical thinking. Because critical thinkers can quickly and effectively synthesize new information from various sources, they should not feel intimidated or particularly surprised when sudden changes are required.

Critical thinking may even render many changes downright welcome, as nurses with this skill are better able to compare and contrast emerging solutions with their predecessors and discern why these changes are actually favorable.

For example, a new electronic health record (EHR) system might seem frustrating to adopt at the outset, but strong critical thinkers will draw on far-reaching insights to recognize that there can be considerable long-term benefits of implementing these systems, such as providing better access to critical information and swift reductions in issues like medication errors.

How to Gain Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking skills are best acquired through the power of practice. Although there’s no denying the importance of developing a solid foundation in topics such as anatomy and pharmacology, it is through experience that nurses gain the ability to properly analyze difficult situations and develop effective strategies for dealing with urgent challenges.

Complex Clinical Situations

It is crucial for both aspiring and current nurses to flex their critical thinking muscles in a clinical capacity. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to build these skills while enrolled in an associate’s or bachelor’s nursing program.[4] Critical thinking and decision-making are core components of clinical experiences, which provide much-needed immersion in the fast-paced and dynamic healthcare environment in addition to plenty of support along the way.

Each hour spent in clinical rotations means yet another opportunity to see complex clinical concerns play out in a real-world setting. Nurses in training do not simply rest on the sidelines, however; they are actively involved in the process of thinking through these situations critically and helping find and apply viable solutions. Following graduation, new nurses can draw on previous clinical experiences to help them think critically and confidently about new and unexpected scenarios.

Assessing the Situation

Patient assessments provide valuable details about their health history and current condition. These insights can then contribute to the critical thinking process by ensuring nurses are able to draw on all available details as they develop relevant care plans. Although formal assessments bring structure to this process, there should be some degree of assessment involved in every task nurses take on. Simply pausing a moment to understand the reality of the situation can prove transformative.

How Do I Use Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is a key component of critical thinking. This makes nurses and nursing students more willing to question their assumptions and reevaluate their thought processes, as they can acknowledge and work around their weaknesses while playing to their strengths.

It may take years to develop genuine self-awareness, but nursing school provides a solid start. The following qualities can produce more accurate and actionable insights into personal attitudes and behaviors:

Be Present

Self-awareness begins with mindfulness—being fully present in the moment rather than fixating on past missteps or future concerns. Instead, nurses must fully commit to each interaction and task. This may occasionally mean stepping back for a moment and using mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing to cut through the tension and gain a clear head.

Focus on the Emotional Health of the Patient

Awareness of one’s own on-the-job conduct should not stand in the way of patient awareness. Rather, these forms of awareness coalesce to complement critical thinking. This can begin with a focus on observing and supporting the patient’s emotional health.

Often, this can be as straightforward as building a sincere rapport with patients and getting to know them. Additionally, empathy is key, as it builds connection and trust while helping nurses stay grounded in the present.

Focus on the Physical Health of the Patient

Upon establishing a stronger emotional connection with patients, nurses should set their sights on markers of physical health. Many of these are revealed during physical assessments, which involve not only monitoring vitals but also closely observing for numerous signs and symptoms. A methodical, detail-oriented process is vital and allows nurses to absorb the full scope of the patient’s situation before analyzing and synthesizing this information to contribute to an eventual care plan.

Remove Self Biases

Concerning research published in the Future Healthcare Journal reveals that bias is a major problem in the modern healthcare system.[5] Implicit stereotypes can determine how patients are assessed and treated. Unfortunately, deeply held biases may lead to inaccurate diagnoses or a problematic bedside manner.

Nurses must be continually prepared to determine where their biases exist and take steps to address them. Practice should begin early on, with nursing students participating in self-awareness activities that press them to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions. These are among the most sensitive and difficult critical thinking exercises, but they can also be the most impactful.

Awareness of Bias

Biases cannot be properly addressed unless nurses are aware they exist in the first place. There is no easy way to develop this awareness; constant self-evaluation is essential as well as exposure to a variety of perspectives.

Many nurses benefit greatly from ongoing ethical training initiatives that encourage them to determine where they hold deeply ingrained biases and make progress toward overcoming them. In addition, mentorship can be helpful, as mentors can pinpoint ongoing biases that nurses might otherwise struggle to unveil.

Avoid False Assumptions

Nurses should avoid the temptation to make knee-jerk assumptions about their patients. Because such a wide range of issues can underscore symptoms and behaviors, it is imperative that nurses assess patients thoroughly to reveal the full scope of any given complaint.

By drawing on a number of resources (including health histories, patient questionnaires, lab tests, and physical assessments), nurses can make the most of tangible evidence that combats problematic assumptions. Think of each patient as a blank slate: Yes, their medical history may influence diagnoses and care, but no two situations look exactly alike, and every patient deserves careful attention and a nuanced response.

Master Critical Thinking

Take your nursing career to the next level by learning to master critical thinking for better patient care. Learn how to pursue your degree in nursing with Carrington College.



[1]Papathanasiou, I. et al. “Critical Thinking: The Development of an Essential Skill for Nursing Students.” Acta Informatica Medica.

[2] Morris, G. “The Value of Critical Thinking in Nursing.” NurseJournal.

[3] Raso, R. “Embracing agility.” Nursing Management.

[4] Carrington College. “2022-2023 Academic Catalog.”

[5] Gopal, D. et al. “Implicit bias in healthcare: clinical practice, research and decision making.” Future Healthcare Journal.

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