Patient Rights and the Essential Role of Nurses

A nurse discusses treatment options with a patient in a hospital bed.
Respecting patient rights is paramount in building trust between patients and medical professionals. It’s also important in achieving positive health outcomes. However, protecting patient rights can be challenging. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) received nearly 260,000 complaints regarding potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule between April 2003 and March 2021. Privacy is just one aspect of patient rights. The scope of patient rights extends to the right to be treated with dignity, make medical decisions, and receive care for preexisting conditions.

Nurses play a critical role in protecting patient rights. Nurses’ codes of ethics establish their obligation to protect patient rights, and nurse leaders in particular are in a unique position to help ensure that patient rights are respected. Nurses who pursue online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs need to honor their obligation to protect patient rights and keep those rights in mind as they move into leadership roles.

What Are Patient Rights in Health Care?

The full scope of patient rights encompasses rights that various sources have set forth. Some of the most prominent sources are discussed below:

American Medical Association

The American Medical Association (AMA) Code of Medical Ethics Opinion 1.1.3 lists a number of patient rights. Examples are a patient’s right to:

  • Ask questions about treatment and health
  • Be treated by medical staff who respect patient confidentiality and privacy
  • Be treated with dignity, respect, and courtesy
  • Discuss with doctors the costs, risks, and benefits of different treatments
  • Get a second opinion
  • Make decisions about health care


HIPAA specifies certain health information privacy rights, such as patients’ rights to:

  • Be advised about how information regarding their health is used and shared
  • Inform health care providers and insurers about certain information that patients don’t want to be shared
  • Obtain a copy of their medical record and other health-related information
  • Request that incorrect information in their health records be corrected or that missing information be added

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act specifies a number of patient rights, such as the right to:

  • Have health insurance that covers preexisting conditions and provides free preventive care
  • Have no lifetime or annual dollar maximums on insurance coverage for essential health benefits
  • Obtain understandable information on health insurance coverage

State Laws Regarding Patient Rights

Several states have passed laws to protect patient rights. New York, Michigan, and Illinois are just a few states that have codified the rights in state law. Many health care providers also publicize their own lists of patient rights. For example, providers such as the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and Cedars-Sinai have published their patient privacy rights on their websites.

The Connection Between Patient Rights and Nursing Ethics

The strong connection between patient rights and nurses’ codes of ethics reinforces the critical role nurses play in protecting patient rights. Their obligation to uphold their ethics places nurses in a unique position to help ensure that patient rights are respected.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) Code of Ethics for Nurses contains several provisions that have a direct connection to patient rights. For example:

  • Provision 1. Nurses are obligated to respect human dignity, establish relationships of trust with patients, actively participate in responsible interventions, and respect patients’ rights regarding self-determination.
  • Provision 2. Nurses’ primary commitment is to patients, and the provision requires nurses to ensure that care plans respect patients’ dignity.
  • Provision 3. Nurses are required to promote and advocate for patients’ safety, health, and rights. The provision also outlines nurses’ obligation to protect patient privacy and confidentiality. In addition, it requires nurses to take appropriate action on questionable practices and protect patients from potential harm.
  • Provision 8. Nurses are obligated to collaborate with health professionals to protect human rights.

Strategies for Nurses to Promote Patient Rights

Particularly when nurses are in leadership roles they can work toward implementing strategies to promote patient rights. Examples of the strategies are:

Providing Nursing Ethics Education and Training

A 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested educational approaches, such as providing ethics education and training in small groups, using a case-centered approach, and discussing actual experiences during clinical practice.

Establishing an Ethics Program

Information services firm Wolters Kluwer has identified certain best practices for ethical nursing leadership. Those best practices suggest that nurse leaders work to establish ethics programs to help ensure collaboration and enhanced decision-making that is in patients’ best interests.

Designating Ethics Champions

Wolters Kluwer’s best practices suggest designating ethics champions to promote nursing ethics and facilitate ethical decision-making. The champions can be nurses who receive specialized training in both medical ethics and ethical challenges in nursing.

Building Awareness of the Rights of Patients Involved in Research Projects

As patient participation in research projects grows, issues of privacy and confidentiality of patient data are also increasing. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics suggested that collaboration among all stakeholders (including nurses) was critical to protect patient privacy in clinical research.

Enhancing Shared Decision-Making Techniques

A 2020 article in American Nurse suggested that nurses can improve patients’ participation in shared decision-making regarding their health by doing things such as communicating with all parties involved in patient care to ensure that patients’ needs are expressed, assessing patients’ ability to participate in shared decision-making, and discussing the shared decision-making process with patients to identify process strengths and weaknesses.

Protecting Patient Rights: A Key Component of Any Nursing Career

Nurses clearly play a critical role in protecting patient rights. Nurses who have an interest in doing so as they move into leadership roles can explore Hawaiʻi Pacific University’s online Master of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice program to learn more about how the program can help them achieve their professional goals. Embark on a rewarding career helping patients receive optimal health care today.

Recommended Readings
The Benefits of Advanced Nursing: What Is the Expected MSN Salary Range
Careers in Advanced Nursing: What Is a Family Nurse Practitioner?
How Family Nurse Practitioners Can Play a Major Role in Addressing the Growing Physician Shortage in the U.S.

American Medical Association, Patient Rights
American Nurse, "Shared Decision Making and Patient-Centered Care"
American Nurses Association, Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements
Cedars-Sinai, Patient Rights
Cleveland Clinic, Patient Rights and Responsibilities, Rights & Protections
Illinois General Assembly, Illinois Compiled Statutes
Mayo Clinic, Rights and Responsibilities of Patients
Michigan Legislature, Public Health Code (Excerpt), Act 368 of 1978
National Center for Biotechnology Information, "A Case-Centered Approach to Nursing Ethics Education: A Qualitative Study"
New York State Department of Health, New York State Hospital Patients’ Bill of Rights
SAGE Journals, "Privacy of Clinical Research Subjects: An Integrative Literature Review"
U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, The Affordable Care Act’s New Patient’s Bill of Rights
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Enforcement Highlights
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Your Health Information Privacy Rights
U.S. House of Representatives, Compilation of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
Wolters Kluwer, Best Practices for Ethical Nursing Leadership