Background. Time is a valuable resource. When nurses experience demands on their services which exceed their available time, then ‘rationing’ must occur. In clinical practice such rationing requires practitioners to set priorities for care.
Aims. The aim of this paper is establish what is currently known about priority setting in nursing, including how nurses set priorities and what factors influence this.
Method. CINAHL, Medline, ASSIA, and PsychLit databases for the years 1982–2002 were searched, using the terms (clinical decision-making or problem-solving or planning) and (setting priorities or prioriti*). The publications found were used in a selective, descriptive review.
Findings. Priority setting is an important skill in nursing, and a skill deficit can have serious consequences for patients. Recent studies have suggested that it is a difficult skill for newly qualified nurses to acquire and may not be given sufficient attention in nurse education. Priority setting can be defined as the ordering of nursing problems using notions of urgency and/or importance, in order to establish a preferential order for nursing actions. A number of factors that may impact on priority setting have been identified in the literature. These include: the expertise of the nurse; the patient's condition; the availability of resources; ward organization; philosophies and models of care; the nurse–patient relationship; and the cognitive strategy used by the nurse to set priorities. However, very little empirical work has been conducted in this area.
Conclusions. Further study of priority setting in a range of clinical practice settings is necessary. This could inform both practice and education, promote better use of limited resources and maximize patient outcomes.