What is moral distress?
Moral distress is a term from the nursing ethics literature, attributed to philosopher Andrew Jameton in 1984.2 Contributors to moral distress imposed by COVID include having to make difficult medical decisions under stressful circumstances – especially early on, when effective treatment options were few. Doctors felt the demands of the pandemic were putting care quality and patient safety at risk. Poor working conditions overall, being pushed to work beyond their normal physical limits for days at a time, and feelings of not being valued added to this stress. But some say the pandemic has only highlighted and amplified existing inequities and disparities in the health care system.
Experts say moral distress is about feeling powerless, especially in a system driven by market values, and feeling let down by a society that has put them in harm’s way. They work all day under physically and emotionally exhausting conditions and then go home to hear specious conspiracy theories about the pandemic and see other people unwilling to wear masks.
Moral distress is complicated, said Lucia Wocial, PhD, RN, a nurse ethicist and cochair of the ethics consultation subcommittee at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis. “If you say you have moral distress, my first response is: tell me more. It helps to peel back the layers of this complexity. Emotion is only part of moral distress. It’s about the professional’s sense of responsibility and obligation – and the inability to honor that.”
Dr. Wocial, whose research specialty is moral distress, is corresponding author of a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine in February 2020, which identified moral distress in 4 out of 10 surveyed physicians who cared for older hospitalized adults and found themselves needing to work with their surrogate decision-makers.3 “We know physician moral distress is higher when people haven’t had the chance to hold conversations about their end-of-life care preferences,” she said, such as whether to continue life support.
“We have also learned that communication is key to diminishing physician moral distress. Our responsibility as clinicians is to guide patients and families through these decisions. If the family feels a high level of support from me, then my moral distress is lower,” she added. “If you think about how COVID has evolved, at first people were dying so quickly. Some patients were going to the ICU on ventilators without ever having a goals-of-care conversation.”
COVID has shifted the usual standard of care in U.S. hospitals in the face of patient surges. “How can you feel okay in accepting a level of care that in the prepandemic world would not have been acceptable?” Dr. Wocial posed. “What if you know the standard of care has shifted, of necessity, but you haven’t had time to prepare for it and nobody’s talking about what that means? Who is going to help you accept that good enough under these circumstances is enough – at least for today?”