What Is Social Justice in Nursing Practice?

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Written by Marie Hasty, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A healthcare team discusses social justice in nursing.

Nursing is rooted in the foundational belief that every person deserves quality, equitable care. The profession is also shaped by social, health, and ethical challenges. Nurses often work within inequitable systems, yet are tasked with advocating for the best patient outcomes. But what does it mean to practice social justice in nursing? And what is the nurses’ role in promoting social justice and health equity?

Understanding health equity and social justice within nursing practice is the first step to better advocating for your patients. Social justice competence isn’t a hard skill, like inserting IVs or charting medications, but it’s just as essential for patient care. Being a nurse advocate means being curious, thinking critically, and holding compassion for all people — all essential qualities in a professional nurse.

What Is Social Justice in Nursing?

Practicing social justice as a nurse means advocating for health equity. Every person has the opportunity to live to their fullest health potential. No one should experience disadvantages because of their social position or other circumstances.

When you think of health equity, you might imagine that it means everyone has access to medical care. But health is affected by many factors — housing, economics, education, law, and discrimination, to name a few. In fact, experts estimate that social issues, not medical care, account for up to 90% of health outcomes.

Being a nurse advocate means recognizing these broader determinants of health and understanding their impact on individuals and communities. It means doing your part to address the social, economic, and cultural factors that contribute to health disparities. Nurses play a crucial role in dismantling systemic barriers that hinder access to health — whether it means advocating for large-scale policy change or for a single patient.

Healthcare is a catch-all for a range of social issues. In nursing, you probably witness social justice issues more than you realize. And depending on where you work, you’ll likely see some problems more than others. Examples include:

  • A patient is being admitted for diabetic ketoacidosis for the third time in a month because they can’t afford insulin.
  • A Black birthing person is at higher risk for birth complications due to systemic racism and disparities.
  • A trans patient in a rural area cannot access transitional care because none of the providers in their area understand their medical needs.
  • A patient who recently immigrated to the U.S. is admitted with acute sepsis after suffering an injury at their farming job. They would have come to the hospital earlier, but were worried they would be deported.
  • A patient is being discharged to a homeless shelter after alcohol detox, where they will likely face barriers to staying alcohol-free.

These problems come from systemic issues, and it isn’t up to you to solve them. As a substance abuse nurse, you can’t address your post-detox patients’ housing problem by inviting them to stay with you. But you can treat them with compassion, give them the sobriety resources they need, and show them that they matter.

Being a nurse advocate doesn’t mean taking on large-scale problems by yourself, although many nurses are involved in social policy change. By understanding how social issues impact your patients and having compassion for the context that people are living in, you can be an advocate in your own way, with every patient, on every shift.

The Importance of Social Justice in Nursing

By practicing social justice as a nurse, you help create healthcare environments that prioritize fairness, inclusivity, and dignity for every individual. You don’t just understand how racism, systemic inequality, and bias affect care, you also work to address it. Social justice not only aligns with ethical nursing principles, but it improves the effectiveness and quality of healthcare delivery.

How to Practice Social Justice in Nursing

If you’re learning about social justice and you’re not sure how to promote health equity, here are some ways to start:

  • Take cultural sensitivity training. Cultural competence allows nurses to provide patient-centered care that respects individual values, beliefs, and practices.
  • Educate others. Use your platform to educate colleagues, patients, and the community about social justice issues in healthcare. Speak up if you hear coworkers talk negatively about a patient or someone else because of race, financial status, or another social justice issue.
  • Be self-reflective. How have you experienced social injustice? Inversely, how have you experienced privilege? Being an advocate means thinking critically about your experiences and how they shape your perceptions.
  • Support health literacy. Empower patients with information to make informed decisions about their health. By enhancing health literacy, nurses contribute to a more equitable distribution of healthcare knowledge and resources.
  • Commit to continuous learning. Stay informed about emerging social justice issues, healthcare policies, and best practices. Continuous learning enables nurses to adapt their approach and contribute to positive change in the healthcare system and beyond.

Examples of Social Justice in Nursing

What does it mean to advocate for your patients as a nurse? No matter where you work, you can practice social justice in healthcare. Examples include:

  • In an ICU, you notice that a Black patient is not receiving the pain management care that he needs. You address this with the medical team, and point out the new plan to the oncoming nurse at shift change.
  • In a pediatric clinic, you see a child who is behind on their vaccines. Their parents both work two jobs and have missed several appointments. You make a note to give them an extra reminder call before their next scheduled visit.
  • Working in case management, you learn that a female patient is living with an abusive partner. Understanding that abuse is complex, you call them to give them resources about local housing options and to tell them that they have your support should they decide to leave.
  • In a med-surg unit, you admit a patient who is having trouble with medication adherence and doesn’t speak much English. By working with an interpreter, you learn that they didn’t understand their medication plan. You alert the medical team to ensure the patient gets the language-appropriate educational materials they need.

Find a New Opportunity to Practice Social Justice in Nursing

No matter where you work as a nursing professional, you can make a difference for your patients. If you’re looking for a new nursing job, sign up for personalized job notifications with IntelyCare.