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Feeling trapped and being torn: Physicians' narratives about ethical dilemmas in hemodialysis care that evoke a troubled conscience.
Umeå University, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Nursing.
Umeå University, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Nursing. Ersta Skondal University College, Department of Health Care Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden.
Umeå University, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Nursing.
2011 (English)In: BMC Medical Ethics, ISSN 1472-6939, E-ISSN 1472-6939, Vol. 12, 8Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

BACKGROUND: This study is part of a major study about difficulties in communicating ethical problems within and among professional groups working in hemodialysis care. Describing experiences of ethically difficult situations that induce a troubled conscience may raise consciousness about ethical problems and thereby open the way to further reflection. The aim of this study was to illuminate the meanings of being in ethically difficult situations that led to the burden of a troubled conscience, as narrated by physicians working in dialysis care.

METHOD: A phenomenological hermeneutic method was used to analyze the transcribed narrative interviews with five physicians who had varying lengths of experience in nephrology.

RESULTS: The analysis shows that physicians working in hemodialysis care suffered from a troubled conscience when they felt torn by conflicting demands and trapped in irresolution. They faced ethical dilemmas where they were forced to make crucial decisions about life or death, or to prioritize when squeezed between time restraints and professional and personal demands. In these ethical dilemmas the physicians avoided arousing conflicts, were afraid of using their authority, were burdened by moral responsibility and felt devalued and questioned about their way of handling the situation. The findings point to another way of encountering ethical dilemmas, being guided by their conscience. This mean sharing the agony of deciding how to act, being brave enough to bring up the crucial problem, feeling certain that better ways of acting have not been overlooked, being respected and confirmed regarding decisions made.

CONCLUSION: The meanings of being in ethically difficult situations that led to the burden of a troubled conscience in those working in hemodialysis care, indicate the importance of increasing the level of communication within and among various professional groups - to transform being burdened by a troubled conscience into using conscience as a guide - in situations where no way of solving the problem seems to be good.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
BioMed Central , 2011. Vol. 12, 8
National Category
URN: urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-44360DOI: 10.1186/1472-6939-12-8ISI: 000291229100001PubMedID: 21569295OAI: diva2:420314
Available from: 2011-06-01 Created: 2011-06-01 Last updated: 2016-10-26Bibliographically approved
In thesis
1. Experiences of being in ethically difficult care situations and an intervention with clinical ethics support
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Experiences of being in ethically difficult care situations and an intervention with clinical ethics support
2016 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Background: Studies show that healthcare professionals often experience ethical difficulties in their relations with patients, relatives, and other professionals and in relation to organisational issues, and these can sometimes be difficult to handle. Failing to act or to relate in accordance with one’s values for what is good and right might cause a troubled conscience that is connected to feelings of guilt and ill-being. Ethical issues related to the care of patients with end-stage renal disease have been described, but no studies in this context have been found that explore registered nurses’ (RNs’) and physicians’ experiences of being in ethically difficult situations that give rise to a troubled conscience. The importance of communicating ethical issues in order to understand and handle ethically difficult care situations has been emphasized. Various forms of clinical ethics support (CES) have been described and evaluated, but studies on the communication processes and the organisation of CES interventions are sparse and no study describing a CES intervention based on Habermas’ theory of communicative action has been found.

Aim: The overall aim was to increase our understanding about being in ethically difficult care situations and about how communication concerning ethical issues in healthcare can be promoted. More specifically, the aim of studies I and II was to illuminate experiences of being in ethically difficult situations giving rise to a troubled conscience among RNs and physicians, while studies III and IV aimed to describe the communication of value conflicts (III) and the organisation and performance of a CES intervention (IV).

Methods: In studies I and II narrative interviews with ten RNs (I) and five physicians (II), were performed in a dialysis care context. The interviews were analysed using a phenomenological hermeneutic approach. In studies III and IV, eight audio- and video-recorded and two audio-recorded sessions of the CES intervention, were conducted and sorted by the data tool Transana and analysed in accordance with a qualitative content analysis (III) and a qualitative concept- and data-driven content analysis (IV).

Results: The RNs’ narratives (I) resulted in the theme ‘Calling for a deliberative dialogue’. Their narratives expressed feelings of uncertainty, solitude, abandonment, and guilt in complex and ambiguous ethically difficult situations. The narratives concerned the value conflict between preserving life by all means and preserving life with dignity. The physicians’ narratives (II) resulted in the themes ‘Feeling trapped in irresolution’ and ‘Being torn by conflicting demands’. Their narratives expressed feelings of uncertainty, solitude, abandonment and guilt related to the obligation to make crucial decisions and in situations when their ideals and the reality iii clashed. The analysis of the communication of value conflicts during the CES intervention inspired by Habermas’ theory of communicative action (study III) revealed a process of five phases: a value conflict expressed as feelings of frustration, sharing disempowerment and helplessness, revelation of the value conflict, enhancing realistic expectations of the patients and relatives, and seeing opportunities to change the situation instead of obstacles. The CES intervention (study IV) was organised as a framework with a given structure and an openness for variations to facilitate communicative action. Three courses of actions to reach a communicative agreement were identified and concerned the approach to achieve a permissive communication, opening up for extended views, and enhancing mutual understanding (IV).

Conclusion: The results show that both RNs and physicians expressed feelings of uncertainty abandonment and loneliness in similar ethically difficult situations but from different points of view. They struggled with the same value conflicts and feelings, but they did not share their struggles with each other. The lack of communication and confirmation led to distrust and increased feelings of uncertainty. The CES intervention, inspired by Habermas’ theory of communicative action, offered the possibility of dealing with experiences of ethically difficult care situations. In the permissive atmosphere, the professionals helped each other to balance their ambiguity, frustrations, and powerlessness and came to an agreement about how to handle the value conflicts and how to act. The findings from this CES intervention constitute a step towards a CES method that is clearly described so that leaders can be educated and extended intervention studies with different kinds of data can be conducted in order to further develop knowledge about how to promote an inter-professional dialogue about ethical difficulties.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Umeå: Umeå universitet, 2016. 54 p.
Umeå University medical dissertations, ISSN 0346-6612 ; 1841
Care ethics, clinical ethics support, ethically difficulties, healthcare professionals, inter-professional communication, narratives
National Category
Research subject
Caring Sciences
urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-126973 (URN)978-91-7601-556-8 (ISBN)
Public defence
2016-11-18, Vårdvetarhusets aula, Petrus Laestadius väg, Umeå, 09:00 (Swedish)
Available from: 2016-10-28 Created: 2016-10-24 Last updated: 2016-10-26Bibliographically approved

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