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Keywords:

  • Ethical decision making;
  • nursing ethics;
  • medical futility

Abstract

Purpose: Nurses in all clinical settings encounter ethical issues that frequently lead to moral distress. This critical incident study explored nurses' descriptions of ethically difficult situations to identify priorities, action responses, and regrets.

Methods: Employing the critical incident technique, researchers developed a questionnaire that collected information on ethically difficult situations, nurse actions, and situational outcomes. Data on nursing priorities and actions were analyzed and categorized using a constant comparison technique.

Findings: Addressing patient autonomy and quality of life were ethical priorities in the majority of cases. In many cases, nurses analyzed ethics from a diffuse perspective and only considered one dimension of the ethics conflict. However, some nurses were specific in their ethical analysis and proactive in their action choices. Nurses also identified 12 ethics-specific nurse activities, five ways of being, three ways of knowing, and two ways of deliberating. In 21 cases, nurses chose not to pursue their concerns beyond providing standard care. Several nurses expressed significant regret in their narration; most regretted unnecessary pain and suffering, and some claimed they did not do enough for the patient.

Conclusions: Not enough specific, evidence-based ethics actions have been developed. Stronger and more proactive nursing voices with early ethics interventions would make valuable contributions to quality of care for patients, especially at the end of life.

Clinical Relevance: Ever-expanding treatment options raise ethical issues and challenge nurses to be effective patient advocates. Evidence-based nursing interventions that promptly identify and address moral conflict will benefit patients, their families, and the entire healthcare team by mitigating potential moral distress and disengagement.