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In times of misinformation, why nurses’ first duty must be the truth

January 18, 2021 – It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war. While we are not involved in a military conflict, we are in many ways embroiled in a global-level battle. In a world of fake news, misinformation and deliberate disinformation, nurses are obliged more than ever to be seen to carry out due diligence to seek facts and evidence to inform their practice. Critically, as the professionals most trusted by the public, nurses must be strongly and visibly aligned with the first duty, which is to the truth.

Based on no evidence, conspiracy theories have swirled around the COVID-19 pandemic nearly from the outset, fuelled by outlandish and unfounded allegations shared across social media, based on nothing beyond personal beliefs. A small group of health-care providers, including nurses, have participated in these behaviours in public ways, creating unnecessary worry among members of the public, damaging the global public health response, and tarnishing the hard-earned reputations of their professions.

This behaviour is unacceptable among nursing professionals in any of our regulated categories. Telling the truth and using evidence are not simply “nice to do” in nursing — they are also professional ethical obligations of registration, fundamental to the privilege of autonomous practice and self-regulation. These obligations are laid out in nursing codes of ethics, which exist across the country. As noted by the Nova Scotia College of Nursing, for example, such codes “help to maintain trust between nurses and the public by articulating the ethical responsibilities that nurses must uphold and promote” (2021).

Other nursing codes are likewise clear in their expectations of nurses. For example:

  • The Code of Ethics for Licensed Practical Nurses in Canada (2013) requires that practitioners “maintain the standards of the profession and conduct themselves in a manner that upholds the integrity of the profession” and “practise in a manner that is consistent with the privilege and responsibility of self-regulation.”
  • The Code of Ethics published by the College of Registered Psychiatric Nurses of Manitoba (2017) is very clear: the nurse “Ensures that one neither initiates nor participates in any practice that is considered harmful to the welfare of others … Conducts one’s self in a manner that reflects honesty, integrity, reliability, impartiality, and diligence … [and] Conducts one’s self in a manner that promotes a positive image of the profession at the local, community, provincial, and national levels.”
  • Finally, the Code of Ethics for Registered Nurses, which includes nurse practitioners and was published by the Canadian Nurses Association (2017), demands that, as members of a self-regulating profession, nurses “practise according to the values and responsibilities in the Code and in keeping with the professional standards, laws and regulations supporting ethical practice” and “are honest and practise with integrity in all of their professional interactions.” Referring specifically to communicable disease outbreaks, “nurses provide care using appropriate safety precautions in accordance with legislation, regulations and guidelines provided by government, regulatory bodies, employers, unions and professional associations.”

In a world where we are all used to speaking up on many issues through social media channels, it is timely to remind ourselves that the public is watching and listening when we identify ourselves as nurses. We encourage our members and all regulated nurses to be familiar with the codes of ethics and standards of practice in the province or territory where they work. Make the time to reflect again on the elements that direct our professional obligation to seek and use facts in our teaching and advocacy work when we identify as members of the nursing profession. Our first duty must always be to the truth, based on scientific evidence and not personal ideology.

Tim Guest, M.B.A., B.Sc.N., RN

Michael Villeneuve, M.Sc., B.Sc.N., RN FAAN
Chief Executive Officer