Moral uncertainty and distress about voluntary assisted dying prior to legalisation and the implications for post-legalisation practice: a qualitative study of palliative and hospice care providers in Queensland, Australia

BMJ Open 13 (2023)
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Abstract

ABSTRACT Objectives There is little research on moral uncertainties and distress of palliative and hospice care providers (PHCPs) working in jurisdictions anticipating legalising voluntary assisted dying (VAD). This study examines the perception and anticipated concerns of PHCPs in providing VAD in the State of Queensland, Australia prior to legalisation of the practice in 2021. The findings help inform strategies to facilitate training and support the health and well-being of healthcare workers involved in VAD. Design The study used a qualitative approach to examine and analyse the perception and anticipated concerns of PHCPs regarding challenges of providing assisted dying in Queensland. Fourteen PHCPs were recruited using a purposive sampling strategy to obtain a broad representation of perspectives including work roles, geographical locations and workplace characteristics. Data were collected via one in-depth interview per participant. The transcripts were coded for patterns and themes using an inductive analysis approach following the tradition of Grounded Theory. Setting The study was conducted in hospital, hospice, community and residential aged care settings in Queensland, Australia. These included public and private facilities, secular and faith-based facilities, and regional/rural and urban facilities. Participants Interviews were conducted with fourteen PHCPs: 10 nurses and 4 physicians; 11 female and 3 male. The median number of years of palliative care practice was 17, ranging from 2 to 36 years. For inclusion, participants had to be practising palliative and hospice care providers. Results PHCPs are divided on whether VAD should be considered part of palliative care. Expectations of moral distress and uncertainty about practising VAD were identified in five areas: handling requests, assessing patient capacity, arranging patient transfers and logistical issues, managing unsuccessful attempts, and dealing with team conflicts and stigma. Conclusions The possibility of having to practise VAD causes moral distress and uncertainty for some PHCPs. Procedural clarity can address some uncertainties; moral and psychological distress, however, remains a source of tension that needs support to ensure ongoing care of both patients and PHCPs. The introduction of VAD post-legalisation may present an occasion for further moral education and development of PHCPs.

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David Kirchhoffer
Australian Catholic University

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