Where do I get my Authority?
So where do nurses get their authority to practice from and does this authority vary across different roles, activities and functions? Part of the confusion is that our authority comes from a wide range of sources.Nurses have authority to practice by virtue of the fact that they are regulated health practitioners within a regulated health profession (as determined by legislation –The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act). This means that nurses on the register can use the protected title ‘nurse’ and practice within the authority given them by the Act (the regulation).
•Under this legislation nurses are afforded further authorisation through professional and regulatory standards endorsed by the regulatory body (the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA) and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (APHRA). The Board endorses standards that define and determine our professional practice. These include the National Competency Standards for the two levels of nurses, Codes of Ethics and Professional Practice and a range of Professional Guidelines outlining professional obligations such as the requirement for completing mandatory continuing professional development. APHRA endorses standards specifically related to our regulation such as, registration types, specialist registration and reporting obligations. All of these regulatory standards/codes and guidelines outline (and provide authority) for us to practice as a nurse.
There are any number of other standards, codes and guidelines endorsed by different professional associations. The Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) in partnership with other professional organisations, has endorsed a number of competency standards such competency standards for Nurses in General Practice. Other professional associations for specialist clinical practice areas may also have agreed competency standards such as for Mental Health Nurses, Asthma Educators etc. Most of nurses evidence based clinical practice policies/procedures and guidelines are endorsed by government (eg Department of Health in each state/territory) or at a local level by the employer. Clearly then, an individual nurses authority to practice may be primarily linked to the policies or the organisation in which the nurse is employed (and so vary significantly from one workplace to the next). This only adds to the confusion as it may mean that a nurse who is competent in a particular clinical procedure may or may not be able to perform this procedure in an organisation that has a policy restriction this practice. A common example of this is enrolled nurses and medication management.
Our authority is also determined by our own level of competence. Our level of education, knowledge and skill determines those activities and functions that we are competent to perform. We are required to be self regulating in that we self assess own competence and our continuing professional development needs to maintain, enhance this competence. So determining our level of authority can be a very complex decision making process. We are often unsure whether a particular policy in our workplace has been determined because it is a regulatory requirement, a legislated requirement a government requirement or solely the decision of our employer. And as so much of our clinical practice is not entrenched in legislation, it can be influenced by workplace culture and history than by emerging contemporary practice.
4 Levels of SOP Decision Making
So we can see from the sources of authority that scope of practice decision-making takes place at four distinct levels.
Regulatory – through the Board (Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia) and AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency). The Board sets standards, establishes expectations and assists nurses to make accountable, evidence based decisions within their scope of practice. Regulatory decision making includes consideration of all legislation that impacts or is impacted upon by nursing practice.
Professional – through peak bodies, professional nursing associations. The nursing and midwifery professions, through peak national and international bodies, professional discussion and debate, establish clear parameters through professional guidance, education and policies to support scope of practice decision making. The professions understand, reflect and contribute to and advocate for amendments to legislation to enhance nursing practice.
Organisational – though workplace policies and procedures, these may be influenced by government protocols and/or legislative requirements or by organisational culture. Employers, directors of nursing and other key collaborative health professionals and providers develop and review policy and practice that determines the practice of nurses in their workplace. These policies influenced by the health needs of their client populations and should support the expansion of nursing scope of practice reflective of meeting client needs and expectations. Organisational decision making and policy also needs to reflects all legislative obligations in relation to nursing practice.
Individual – the nurse makes decisions and uses professional judgement based on their own knowledge, skills, expertise and level of responsibility and accountability. Nurses, in a context of self-regulation and self-assessment of continuing competence, should consider their scope of practice and make decisions based on education, experience, knowledge, competence, skills and the workplace environment.
Scope of practice decision-making can occur and/or be instigated at any of these four levels but interdependent and interactive across the levels. Further, for nursing practice to be effective, and underpin the autonomy of the profession, it should be a supportive (not punitive or restrictive) process and should work to facilitate best practice.
Scope of Practice decision making requires the nurse to consider a number of factors to determine whether to move forward with an activity of function, to seek further advice or to refer to another health practitioner. By considering each of these factors a nurse can make a decision about whether the activity function is within their scope of practice to perform or whether it more appropriately within the role of another health practitioner (within the same profession or another profession).
As registered nurses have the added responsibility for the supervision of and delegation to enrolled nurses, part of their scope of practice decision making will be in relation to the level of supervision and the appropriateness of delegation to an enrolled nurse in each circumstance. As we have a previously identified that scope of practice is determined by many variables a decision about whether or not a function or activity is within a nurses’ scope of practice must be based on assessing these variables. Remember they include regulatory standards/protocols, professional standards/protocols, workplace policy, own level of competency and accountability held and the needs of the client/population. A simple linear decision-making tree then, can assist us to consider all of these variables as part of our decision making.
Lets look at an example of scope of practice decision-making and how you can use the decision making process.
An Agency RN is is sent to an Aged Care Facility on a late shift. It was a last minute booking due to sick leave so when she arrives the day shift RNs have left and its after 4pm. An EN is rostered on duty with two Nursing Assistants. The EN gives a handover and then raises the matter of the medication round. “’I’ll do the drugs up my end and you do them this end” says the EN. The RN thinks to herself……”What do I do, I don’t know the EN or whether she is competent. I don’t know the policy here either. What if she makes a mistake…am I accountable? Should I do them all? HELP!”
So how does she make this decision?
If she uses the SOP Decision-Making Tree she should consider the following…
1. Will the clients of the NH benefit from the EN giving medications in one wing and the RN in the other?
The RN does not know the clients and does not have time to familiarise herself with their case histories in detail.The EN does know the clients and their conditions and their medications. Also the EN would recognise subtle changes in health status of the clients as she is familiar with them
Two staff administering medication means that the clients will receive their medications on time (without extended delay due to 1 RH who is not familiar with them). YES – a client benefit is identified.
2. Is the activity within the practice of the profession?
This often a point of confusion as some ENs have current medication competency and others do not. How does the RN identify this? (ASK!) The EN is also accountable for being competent and practicing within her scope of practice so she would be able to verify if she is competent. (some workplaces have competency sign off books so the EN may be able to present this as evidence. However this is not required and an RN can ask a few simple questions to identify if the EN has current skills in this activity. Why would the RN not assume that the EN, as a health professional, would tell the truth. If the EN responded that she had not administered medications recently then the decision to delegate changes. In this instant the EN has indicated by her comment, that she assumes she will be giving the medications and by her comment, that this is a common practice.
The RN could also recall that there have been changes to regulatory requirements for ENs and medication administration and if the EN was not able to administer medications this would be noted on her practicing certificate.YES – within the ENs practice and within the practice of many other Ens.
3. Is there a policy in place?
This is one of the key variables as some workplaces do not allow ENs to administer medications whilst others do. Again, the RN could merely ask the EN what the policy is in the NH. If the EN has made an assumption that it is routine for her to administer the medications and that she has current competency then it seem reasonable to expect that it is routine policy within the facility. If the EN was to say that some RNs let her give the medications and others didn’t then it would need to clarify the policy (and perhaps ask to site it). There are also many examples of standards and guidelines from professional bodies supporting medication management as part of EN scope of practice.In this case we will say YES the policy is in place as medication administration is a routine activity on late shifts when there is only 1 RN
4. Is the EN the most appropriate person to perform the activity?
The RN has considered this in relation to meeting client needs. Where there another RN this would not be the decision. In handover and in further discussion with the EN, if it was identified that several clients were unwell or unstable, or if medication regimes had recently changes, the RN may decide to assess these clients herself and review their condition whilst administering their medications. If it was identified that a number of clients were on prn medications this may also be her decision. In this case it is identified that the client care is routine and medication regime unchanged so the RNs decision is that the activity is within the ENs scope of practice and to delegate the activity.The concern that if an EN makes an error that the RN is accountable for that error is a fallacy. Both RNs and ENs are accountable for their own decisions and actions and the consequences of their decisions and actions.
Simply explained (and without prejudice). The RN cannot be accountable for the decisions and actions of another nurse. If the EN make an error, they are accountable for that error and the decisions/judgment they made and how they performed the activity resulted in the error. The RN is however accountable for the supervision of and delegation to the EN.
What does this mean?
If for example the RN delegated a procedure to the EN that was outside of the ENs level of competence, but told the EN to do it anyway, the RN is accountable for inappropriate professional judgement in delegation. (Note: the EN is still accountable for performing a procedure that they were not competent to perform – they should have refused to accept the delegation). If the RN failed to appropriately supervise an activity performed by the EN and that lack of supervision contributed to the error occurring, then the RN is accountable for poor supervision (again the EN is still accountable for the actual error). In both of these instances the RN is accountable for her decisions and actions – ie decision about the level of supervision required and decision to delegate activity. The EN is accountable for the error. If the RN made a sound decision about both supervision and delegation but an error occurred – the EN is accountable for the error .
Understanding and articulating your scope of practice
As we are now required to complete annual Continuing Professional Development as part of our evidence of competence it important to be able to articulate our own individual scope of practice as part of this evidence. Consider writing a short (no more than 500 words) statement of your scope of practice. You can use a set of questions to assist you in structuring your thinking. Once you have done this type it up without the questions and sign and date it. You can include this in your portfolio.
Consider the following questions;
What is my level of education?
Do not rewrite your qualifications as this is already contained in your CV. Document the level of qualification you have achieved and the area of study your have focused on
What is my level and area of competence?
Again, do not write a list of procedures but rather document your broad skills, knowledge and area of practice and refer to the Competency Standards (the language in the Competency Standards may assist you)
What am I authorised to do?
Write your broad functions and duties and the level of accountability.
Date and Sign
This formalises the document and validates it as evidence.