A Culture of Avoidance: Voices From Inside Ethically Difficult Clinical Situations

Carol Pavlish

Katherine Brown-Saltzman

Alyssa Fine

Patricia Jakel

ethical dilemmas, end-of-life care, ethical conflicts, moral distress, oncology nursing
CJON 2015, 19(2), 159-165. DOI: 10.1188/15.CJON.19-02AP

Background: Healthcare providers experience many ethical challenges while caring for and making treatment decisions with patients and their families.

Objectives: The purpose of this ethnographic study was to examine the challenges and circumstances that surround ethically difficult situations in oncology practice.

Methods: The authors conducted six focus groups with 30 oncology nurses in the United States and interviewed 12 key informants, such as clinical ethicists, oncologists, and nurse administrators.

Findings: The authors found that many healthcare providers remain silent about ethical concerns until a precipitating crisis occurs and ethical questions can no longer be avoided. Patients, families, nurses, and physicians tended to delay or defer conversations about prognosis and end-of-life treatment options. Individual, interactional, and system-level factors perpetuated the culture of avoidance. These included the intellectual and emotional toll of addressing ethics, differences in moral perspectives, fear of harming relationships, lack of continuity in care, emphasis on efficiency, and lack of shared decision making. This information is critical for any proactive and system-level effort aimed at mitigating ethical conflicts and their frequent companions—moral distress and burnout.

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