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Every day in clinical settings, nurses practise in complex and dynamic situations. Nurses work to achieve emergent order in these situations through nursing prioritization of the patient need for care. As direct research on nursing prioritization had not been reported, a study, using critical realism as method, was designed to discern the profession's embedded understanding from within the clinical decision-making literature. The research synthesizes a tacit knowledge on nursing prioritization of the patient need for care from key international literature (from 1966 to 2003). Nursing prioritization was discerned in both education and practice literatures; interrelationships between these and theoretical approaches were also identified. Nursing prioritization of the patient need for care was revealed both as a non-sequential decision-making process throughout unfolding patient situations and as an advanced skill of nursing practice. Increasing confidence with this skill is the hallmark of developing expertise.