Moral distress and positive experiences of ICU staff during the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons learned

BMC Medical Ethics 24 (1):1-17 (2023)
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Abstract

Background The COVID-19 pandemic causes moral challenges and moral distress for healthcare professionals and, due to an increased work load, reduces time and opportunities for clinical ethics support services. Nevertheless, healthcare professionals could also identify essential elements to maintain or change in the future, as moral distress and moral challenges can indicate opportunities to strengthen moral resilience of healthcare professionals and organisations. This study describes 1) the experienced moral distress, challenges and ethical climate concerning end-of-life care of Intensive Care Unit staff during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and 2) their positive experiences and lessons learned, which function as directions for future forms of ethics support. Methods A cross-sectional survey combining quantitative and qualitative elements was sent to all healthcare professionals who worked at the Intensive Care Unit of the Amsterdam UMC - Location AMC during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey consisted of 36 items about moral distress (concerning quality of care and emotional stress), team cooperation, ethical climate and (ways of dealing with) end-of-life decisions, and two open questions about positive experiences and suggestions for work improvement. Results All 178 respondents (response rate: 25–32%) showed signs of moral distress, and experienced moral dilemmas in end-of-life decisions, whereas they experienced a relatively positive ethical climate. Nurses scored significantly higher than physicians on most items. Positive experiences were mostly related to ‘team cooperation’, ‘team solidarity’ and ‘work ethic’. Lessons learned were mostly related to ‘quality of care’ and ‘professional qualities’. Conclusions Despite the crisis, positive experiences related to ethical climate, team members and overall work ethic were reported by Intensive Care Unit staff and quality and organisation of care lessons were learned. Ethics support services can be tailored to reflect on morally challenging situations, restore moral resilience, create space for self-care and strengthen team spirit. This can improve healthcare professionals’ dealing of inherent moral challenges and moral distress in order to strengthen both individual and organisational moral resilience. Trial registration The trial was registered on The Netherlands Trial Register, number NL9177.

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