Following a DNR: An Ethical Dilemma in Nursing

Course Highlights

  • In this course we will learn about a common ethical dilemma in nursing, and why it is important for nurses to always abide by a patient’s DNR order.
  • You’ll also cover the ANA Code of Ethics with Interpretive Statements.
  • You’ll leave this course with a broader understanding of how to continue to provide care, while respecting your patient’s wishes.


Contact Hours Awarded: 1.5

Course By:
Michael York

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End-of-life issues are often full of emotion and difficult to deal with for all involved. Do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders can present many moral and ethical dilemmas in nursing. It takes the entire healthcare team, including the patient and their family, to ensure that all final wishes for the patient are followed. In order to understand this ethical dilemma in nursing, we must first define what ethical dilemmas are and what a DNR order is. 

What is an Ethical Dilemma in Nursing? 

Ethics are a system of moral principles or rules of conduct recognized by a particular group; however, the American Nurses Association (ANA) has developed its own code of ethics (1). The ANA Code of Ethics with Interpretive Statements includes nine provisions that direct a nurse’s moral and ethical practice, it reads:  

Provision 1

The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person.  

Provision 2

The nurse's primary commitment is to the patient, whether an individual, family, group, community, or population.  

Provision 3

The nurse promotes, advocates for, and protects the rights, health, and safety of the patient.  

Provision 4

The nurse has authority, accountability, and responsibility for nursing practice; makes decisions; and takes action consistent with the obligation to provide optimal patient care.  

Provision 5

The nurse owes the same duties to self as to others, including the responsibility to promote health and safety, preserve wholeness of character and integrity, maintain competence, and continue personal and professional growth.  

Provision 6

The nurse, through individual and collective effort, establishes, maintains, and improves the ethical environment of the work setting and conditions of employment that are conducive to safe, quality health care.  

Provision 7

The nurse, in all roles and settings, advances the profession through research and scholarly inquiry, professional standards development, and the generation of both nursing and health policy.  

Provision 8

The nurse collaborates with other health professionals and the public to protect human rights, promote health diplomacy, and reduce health disparities.  

Provision 9

The profession of nursing, collectively through its professional organizations, must articulate nursing values, maintain the integrity of the profession, and integrate principles of social justice into nursing and health policy (2). 


An ethical dilemma in nursing arises when decisions are made that go against the ANA Code of Ethics with Interpretive Statements.  

It is important to note that the nurse's main duty is to be an advocate for their patient, meaning that all actions should be in the patient’s best interest. Adhering to this principle will ensure a clear moral path where any ethical dilemma in nursing can be avoided.   

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. What is an ethical dilemma in nursing? 
  2. Thinking of your own practice, have you ever had to make choices that compromised your personal ethics or breached the ANA code of ethics? 
  3. Can ethical issues be completely avoided? 


A DNR is an order written by a physician that is usually given to those who are critically or terminally ill. The order states that in the event of cardiopulmonary arrest, should the patient's heart stop or should they stop breathing, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) will not be administered. The decision for a DNR order is always discussed with the patient if they are conscious and have the capacity to make informed decisions. Should the patient be incapacitated, their power of attorney (POA), health care agent, or family member may be allowed to make the decision for a DNR. If a patient is known to be gravely ill, they may already have an existing DNR order, or an advanced directive/living will. Once this document is produced for the institution, the order will go into effect. If a DNR order has been put in place by the patient and physician, the family should not have the power to lift the order once the patient deteriorates and can no longer make decisions (3). 

There was a time in the history of healthcare when there were different tiers of a DNR order. For example, there used to be a medication only/chemical code where medication could continue to be administered, but no compressions or artificial respirations could be performed by the healthcare team; in the end, this proved to be a wasted effort as the medication would be circulated and provide no effect. Many institutions have gotten away from the tires of DNR; what I mean by this is, either there is a DNR order in place for a patient, or there is not. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1.  Have you ever initiated a DNR order? 
  2. Have you ever been in a situation where a patient's family or healthcare team did not agree with the DNR? 
  3. What is a DNR order? 

Ethical Dilemma in Nursing: DNR 

If a DNR order is put in place by the physician in conjunction with the patient, how could there possibly be any ethical dilemmas in nursing? There should be no problems associated with a DNR order; however, ethical dilemmas arise when the team (patient, physician, healthcare workers, and family) are not all on the same page regarding the DNR. One of the main problems is that different healthcare workers have different interpretations of what a DNR means. It must be understood that a DNR means “do not resuscitate,” and does not mean “do not treat.” To better explore the ethical dilemmas in nursing associated with a DNR order, we will look at scenarios that I have come across over my 25 years of nursing: 

Scenario 1 

A patient is sent from a telemetry unit to radiology for a CT scan. The patient has severe cardiomyopathy and requests a DNR upon admission. The order is noted on the patient’s chart. When they are sent to radiology for the scan, the floor nurse neglects to place the code status on the patient hand-off form. During the scan, the patient becomes unresponsive, and a code blue is called; CPR is initiated, and the patient is intubated.   

During the resuscitation, it is discovered that the patient has a DNR order. The physician running the code continues with CPR, rationalizing that they could ‘not just stop’ the life-saving measures that they had already begun. The patient is revived and transferred to the ICU. Later, during the admission, the family withdraws life support, and the patient expires.  

In this first scenario, we can see that a communication error led to the DNR order not being followed. Once discovered, the physician in charge refused to comply with the order.  Ultimately, the patient passed after a few days on life support.   

This ethical dilemma came to play once the code team realized that the patient had a DNR. The code could have been stopped at this point, and the lead physician could have spoken with the patient's family to explain what had occurred. Many facilities do have policies in place where if a patient goes for a procedure/surgery, the DNR order may be on hold during the time that they are in the procedure; this does not generally include diagnostic scans.   

Scenario 2

A G-tube is ordered for a terminally ill cancer patient. The patient is unable to eat and needs a G-tube for nutrition and medication administration. When the gastroenterologist comes in to do the consult, they discover that the patient has a DNR order. They refuse to place the G-tube due to the DNR order and claim that the G-tube is a ‘life-saving’ measure. The patient is sent back up to their room without having the G-tube placed. After two days, a second consult is placed, and a different doctor approves and places the G-tube. 

The ethical dilemma in this scenario is that the provider refuses to provide treatment based on a poor understanding of what a DNR really means. Again, DNR does not mean “do not treat.”  There are many procedures that can and should be performed regardless of a patient's code status. Though a G-tube can prolong someone's life, it also serves as a means to keep them comfortable through both nutrition and the administration of needed medications, including analgesics. A G-tube insertion can ultimately assist the patient to die with dignity by allowing them to receive alimentation and medicines. It is not solely the provider's responsibility to decide what measures are heroic and which are not. The entire multidisciplinary healthcare team should be involved in the care of the patient, especially when questions could arise as to if a certain procedure is ethical.   

This scenario led to a peer review of the provider's actions.   

Scenario 3

A patient, along with their healthcare team and family, has decided to enact a DNR order. They have been gravely ill for a long time and want "nature to take its course." After the DNR order was placed, one of their family members arrive from out of town; they do not agree with the DNR order and want it to be revoked. The patient refuses, and the DNR is left in place. The next day, the patient becomes unresponsive while the family member is in the room. They insist that the nurse begin CPR and threatens legal action if the code blue is not started immediately. The nurse becomes intimidated by them, as they do not fully understand the DNR order, and commences the code blue. 

The patient is revived and is transferred to the ICU. They voice their anger to the healthcare team about their wishes not being followed; CPR was not to have been administered. Three days later, they become unresponsive and expired; however, this time CPR was not administered, and the DNR was followed. 

Once again, the ethical issue occurred due to misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge from both the patient’s family and the healthcare team. The family member sought to go against the patient's explicit wishes to cancel the DNR. When they would not, as soon as the patient became unresponsive, they demanded that the staff perform CPR. The nurse should have refused, as the family member was not the legal decision-maker, and the patient's expressed wishes were known prior to them falling unresponsive; instead, the nurse breached the DNR and performed life-saving measures. 

Quiz Questions

Self Quiz

Ask yourself...

  1. In your nursing practice, have you ever come across an ethical issue involving a DNR order? 
  2. In the three scenarios, what was the cause of the ethical issues? 
  3. Could these ethical issues have been avoided? 


A DNR order is put in place when a patient does not want life-saving measures to be performed. The healthcare team and family are involved in the decision-making process, but the decision ultimately belongs to the patient. A patient with a DNR order still needs to be treated for their medical problems and, like any other patient, needs to be treated with dignity and respect. It is important that the healthcare team understands what the DNR encompasses and who can make decisions for the patient should they deteriorate. The nurse must always do what is best for the patient and follow the ANA Code of Ethics with Interpretive Statements. 

References + Disclaimer

  1. Ethics. (2021). Retrieved from 
  2. ANA. (2021). Retrieved from Ethics and Human Rights:
  3. Dugdale, D. C. (2020, January 12). Do-not-resuscitate order. Retrieved from MedlinePlus:

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