Conference Coverage

Healthy, ethical environments can alleviate ‘moral distress’ in clinicians



– Understanding the experience of “moral distress” in critical care is essential because of its potential negative effects on health care providers and the need to prevent or address those effects, according to Marian Altman, PhD, RN, a clinical practice specialist from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

Dr. Marian Altman of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses Tara Haelle/MDedge News

Dr. Marian Altman

Dr. Altman spoke about moral distress as part of a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians on how to handle nonbeneficial treatment requests from families, including the legal and ethical obligations of care providers when a patient is receiving life-sustaining treatment.

“The key point about moral distress is that these are personal constraints, and so the choices of what is best for a patient often conflicts with what is best for the organization,” Dr. Altman told CHEST 2018 attendees. “It could conflict with what’s best for the care providers, the family, or even other patients, and so it’s that personal experience of moral compromise that often originates in this broader practice of our routine.”

While it does not necessarily occur frequently, moral distress is intense when it does occur.

“It really threatens the identity and the integrity of those who experience it because they truly believe they are seriously compromised with this deep personal effect,” Dr. Altman said.

Dr. Altman credited Andrew Jameton, a bioethicist who authored a seminal book on ethical issues in nursing in 1984, with defining exactly what moral distress is: “painful feelings and/or the psychological disequilibrium that occurs when a person is conscious of the morally appropriate action a situation requires but cannot carry out that action because of the institutionalized obstacles, such as lack of time, lack of supervisory support, exercise of medical power, and institutional policy or legal limits.” Or, in plainer terms, “Moral distress occurs when one knows the ethically correct action to take but feels powerless to take that action,” as Elizabeth G. Epstein, PhD, RN, and Sarah Delgado, MSN, RN, wrote in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing.

To understand moral distress, it’s important to know what it’s not, too, Dr. Altman said. It’s not the daily stress of work or compassion fatigue or even burnout, though it can lead to burnout.

“Burnout is the state of physical, emotional, and mental fatigue and exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding,” Dr. Altman said. “Burnout has been linked with moral distress, but they are two very different things.”

It’s also not a disagreement among colleagues or “an excuse to avoid a challenging situation.” In fact, the No. 1 cause of moral distress, in study after study, Dr. Altman said, is providing medical care, particularly medically futile care.

“Providing really unnecessary treatments and providing end-of-life care can lead to it as well as complex patients and challenging situations,” Dr. Altman said. Other causes include inadequate staffing, incompetent providers, poor communication, and advanced technology used to sustain life.

Though people often associate moral distress with intensive care, it can occur “wherever care is provided” and can “affect all members of the health care team,” Dr. Altman said. Though the early research into moral distress focused on critical care nurses, the field has since exploded, across all medical disciplines and in countries around the world.

That research has revealed how intensely moral distress can impact the psychological, biological, and social health of people. Physical symptoms that can result from moral distress include diarrhea, headache, heart palpitations, neck pain, muscle aches, and vomiting. The emotions it rouses include frustration, fear, anger, anxiety, and, especially, powerlessness and guilt.

Moral distress can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction in individuals and, subsequently, reduced retention and productivity within institutions. Health care providers who experience moral distress may leave their position, their unit, or the profession altogether.

“That can have a huge impact in a time when we need many more health care providers to care for this exploding population,” Dr. Altman said. It can also negatively influence the patient-provider relationship, potentially affecting the quantity and safety of care delivered, she explained.

But there are ways to address moral distress, she said.

“We’re not going to eradicate it because we will never eradicate critical care or end-of-life care, and those are the causes that lead to moral distress,” Dr. Altman said. “But what we can do, and what the research is now focusing on, is concentrate on improving our work environment, and help people recognize that they’re experiencing moral distress before it gets to burnout … or mitigating moral distress when it occurs.”

Those improvements include fostering both a positive ethical environment, with ethics education, an ethics committee, and on-site ethics experts, and a healthy work environment with collaboration and skillful communication.

Research has shown that “a higher ethical work environment is correlated with a decrease in moral distress frequency,” Dr. Altman said. And structured communication processes should focus on the goals of care, she said. More formal programs may include moral distress workshops, a moral distress consult service, an ethics consult service, and distress debriefings, during which a facilitator leads providers in a structured, collaborative discussion about a distressing event that has occurred.

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