How nurses use critical thinking and problem-solving to enhance patient care


As a nurse, you may encounter many different challenging situations that force you to think and act quickly. To make the most effective decisions with the best possible outcome, you need to think on your feet and process situations through a combination of critical thinking and problem-solving.

Critical thinking and problem-solving are two essential skills that nurses need to have to provide safe, efficient, and effective patient care. The healthcare industry is complex, and the ability to think critically and solve problems is crucial in making critical decisions that directly impact patient outcomes.

How does a nurse use critical thinking and problem-solving skills to enhance patient care? Below are the key concepts of critical thinking and problem solving and how these skills help nurses provide the best possible care to their patients.

Critical thinking in nursing

Critical thinking is an essential component of nursing practice. It is the process of analyzing and evaluating information to make sound and informed decisions. Critical thinking involves identifying the problem and gathering and evaluating the information to make informed decisions. Critical thinking is necessary for nurses to provide safe, efficient and effective care to their patients. The following are some of the ways that critical thinking skills enhance patient care:

  • Assessment: The nursing process starts with a comprehensive assessment of the patient’s condition. Critical thinking skills combined with professional insight enable the nurse to collect relevant data from the patient, their family members, and the medical records. This information helps the nurse to make an accurate diagnosis, identify potential complications, and develop an appropriate care plan.
  • Diagnosis: Critical thinking skills allow the nurse to analyze the data collected during the assessment phase to make an accurate diagnosis. This involves identifying the patient’s health problems, identifying the underlying causes, and developing a plan to address these issues.
  • Planning: Critical thinking skills help nurses to define and develop a comprehensive care plan that is tailored to the patient’s unique needs. The care plan should be individualized, based on the patient’s diagnosis, and should consider the patient’s preferences, values and beliefs.
  • Implementation: Critical thinking skills help the nurse to implement the care plan effectively. This includes administering medications, performing treatments, and providing education to the patient and their family members. The nurse must monitor the patient’s response to treatment and adjust the care plan as needed.
  • Evaluation: Critical thinking skills help the nurse to evaluate the effectiveness of the care plan. This involves monitoring the patient’s response to treatment, identifying any new problems that may arise, and adjusting the care plan as needed.

According to a paper published with the National Library of Medicine in 2014, “nurses must adopt positions that promote critical thinking and refine skills of critical reasoning in order a meaningful assessment of both the previous and the new information and decisions taken daily on hospitalization and use of limited resources, forces you to think and act in cases where there are neither clear answers nor specific procedures and where opposing forces transform decision making in a complex process”.

Problem-solving in nursing

Problem-solving is the process of identifying a problem, developing a plan to address the issue, and implementing the plan to resolve the problem. Nurses face various problems in their daily practice, ranging from simple to complex issues. The ability to solve problems is essential for nurses to effectively provide care for their patients.

The value of problem-solving as a nurse is highlighted in a paper published in 2020 by the Journal of Nursing Research: “Healthcare institutions are where individuals seek remedies to their health problems. These institutions face problems, which relate to both employees and care recipients. These problems may occur spontaneously and require an immediate solution. Moreover, these problems require that the preferred remedies be adapted to address the unique nature of both organizational circumstances and individual requirements. Therefore, it is important that nurses, who are a major component of the healthcare system, have problem-solving skills.”

The following are some of the ways that problem-solving skills enhance patient care:

  • Identifying problems: Problem-solving skills help the nurse to identify and prioritize problems that need to be addressed. This involves gathering information about the patient’s condition, assessing the patient’s needs, and identifying potential complications.
  • Developing a plan: Once the nurse has identified the problem, problem-solving skills help them to develop a plan to address the issue. This includes setting goals, developing a plan of action, and identifying the resources needed to implement the plan.
  • Implementing the plan: Problem-solving skills help the nurse to implement the plan effectively. This involves administering medications, performing treatments, and providing education to the patient and their family members. The nurse must monitor the patient’s response to treatment and adjust the care plan as needed.
  • Evaluating the plan: Problem-solving skills help the nurse to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan. This involves monitoring the patient’s response to treatment, identifying any new problems that may arise, and making adjustments to the care plan as needed.

A nurse could also follow the above steps to solve a problem. Problems can range from patient care to staffing shortages, or even in their personal life in regard to work-life balance. Using these problem-solving skills both professionally and personally will not only keep these skills sharp, but also improve comfortability with decisions made and help improve overall work-life balance.

Critical thinking with problem-solving in nursing

While these skills pair well together, they are not exclusive to each other. A nurse could be a great problem-solver in areas that they are familiar with and that may not need as much critical thinking to resolve. On the other hand, they could be excellent at critical thinking but not be able to put a plan into action.

It is best that the two are used in conjunction with one another to have the most effective results. As a nurse, you want to be able to take in every aspect of a problem efficiently and work to solve it as quickly and correctly as possible. Capitalizing on both of these skills will improve your work as a nurse.

The following are some examples of how critical thinking and problem-solving skills are used in nursing practice:

  • Patient assessment: A nurse is caring for a patient with chest pain. The nurse collects data on the patient’s pain, including location, intensity and duration. The nurse also collects data on the patient’s medical history, including any past cardiac events. The nurse uses critical thinking skills to evaluate the data and develops a care plan that includes administering pain medication and monitoring the patient’s vital signs.
  • Medication administration: A nurse is administering medication to a patient who has a history of allergies. The nurse uses problem-solving skills to verify the medication and dosage, check for any potential drug interactions, and monitor the patient for any adverse reactions.
  • Patient education: A nurse is providing education to a patient who is being discharged from the hospital after surgery. The nurse uses critical thinking skills to assess the patient’s understanding of the discharge instructions, identify any barriers to learning, and develop a plan to address any issues. The nurse also uses problem-solving skills to ensure that the patient has access to the resources they need to follow the care plan.
  • Collaboration: A nurse is working as part of a multidisciplinary team to care for a patient with complex medical needs. The nurse uses critical thinking skills to identify the patient’s needs, gather information from other team members, and develop a care plan that addresses the patient’s unique needs. The nurse also uses problem-solving skills to ensure that the team is working effectively together and that the patient’s care is coordinated.

Now that you know why these skills are important and how and when to use them, you may be wondering how to improve your skills.

Building your skillset

There are many ways to sharpen your skills in problem solving and critical thinking. One is through practice and applying these points to every aspect of your career and life. Doing small things to change the way that you think about decisions in your life, whether at work as a nurse, in another role, or personally, will help you become focused on this type of thinking and action.

Simple things such as questioning the information you receive and considering the source of that information before taking and running with it is a good start. Other things such as active listening and asking questions for more than a yes or no answer will also help. Do this at work with patients or at work with colleagues to help build your ability to think critically.

For problem solving, you can apply many of the same principles you use with critical thinking. Applying these questions will help to make sure that you are on the right path for a resolution that will actually solve the problem and not just temporarily fix a small one.

At the start of any problem you face, consider whether that is the real problem. For example, if you are having a bad day and feel as though everyone is being a bit of a pain, have you stopped to consider whether you’re hungry or tired and might be a bit more sensitive to emotions at that particular moment? People often focus on one problem at a time, and the real problem that needs to be solved to mitigate all of the issues at once is ignored because they aren’t looking at the whole picture.

You can also take classes to improve upon the skills you already have. Learning new ways to use your skills will take you beyond your current knowledge and build new skill levels that will help you excel in your career.

Shadowing someone who you know has excellent skills can also help you learn a lot. If that person is willing to break down what they are thinking about as they do it, you can apply that in the future. It may also help to see these skills in action, with your colleague acting as a narrator. As a nurse, you may build this relationship with someone during your clinical placement rotations. That way, you can have someone there to guide you through treating a patient, and also to shadow you and ask any questions you may have missed so that you can better understand what to do the next time.

One other important way to improve your skills is not to discount what you already know, but to recognize the value of new, verifiable, reliable information. The field of medicine is changing rapidly, and you may not always be able to keep up. This means that even if you have treated something similar before, you should double-check that it is still the best possible treatment before moving ahead.

Many skills are learned through nursing school to help you apply these principles to your nursing career. Nursing school equips nurses with the experience and knowledge to improve these skills, both through academic work and through hands-on learning on placement. An important consideration when deciding to attend school is what you will learn during your time there. In addition to patient care, you want to be able to learn the skills that will help you become a well-rounded nurse and be able to perform your best.

Building on your existing skills is another way to make sure that you stay sharp with your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Making sure to look at every problem from multiple angles even when you think that you already know the solution is critical to patient care. Consider your surroundings and look for context clues in complex situations to see if the information is missing or if you haven’t asked the right questions yet.

Nursing school can take two to four years to complete, and it is up to you how long you choose to spend there. To fast-track your career change, you can choose an ABSN. What is ABSN? An Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing, or ABSN, allows you to convert your existing bachelor’s degree to a nursing one in a shorter amount of time. This sets you up for success in a career change, and with a dedicated program, your school should help you understand the conversion and differences between your two degrees.

Rockhurst University has an ABSN program that you can complete in just 16 months. These courses are also fully online with a 10-day immersive clinical placement, allowing you to work on your degree while you continue to work, as the shortened timeframe (if you’re attending full-time) means that you may spend less overall on your degree.


Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are essential for nurses to provide safe, efficient and effective patient care. These skills enable nurses to assess the patients’ needs, identify problems, and develop and implement appropriate care plans. By using critical thinking and problem-solving skills, nurses can improve patient outcomes, prevent adverse events, and enhance the quality of care provided to patients.

It is essential for nursing students to develop and refine their critical thinking and problem-solving skills to prepare them for the complex challenges they will face in their nursing practice. It is vital to choose the right school for your learning style, and also the right course to learn the skills and tools to be a better nurse.

If you are only considering nursing for the first time and now want to take this path, apply these skills to choosing one of the numerous nursing fields. That way, you can make sure the that path you choose is the best fit for you.

Work hard in every aspect of your life for a fulfilling and rewarding career in nursing that allows you to help others. If you have what it takes to look at a problem and give it an unbiased, critical review and then work toward a solution, then nursing may be the right profession for you.

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