Episode 253: The Ethics of Caring for People You Know Personally

“Nursing ethics is relationship centered because when your friend, family member, or colleague becomes a patient, that relationship can’t be uninformed by how you know that person before they got sick. The first thing is to recognize you know them, and caring or them poses some fairly unique challenges in terms of, ‘How do I maintain professional boundaries?’” Lucia D. Wocial, PhD, RN, FAAN, HEC-C, senior clinical ethicist at the Lynch Center for Ethics at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC, told Jaime Weimer, MSN, RN, AGCNS-BC, AOCNS®, oncology clinical specialist at ONS, about the ethical considerations and implications of providing cancer care when people you know become the patient—whether they’re a friend, family member, or a colleague. You can earn free NCPD contact hours after listening to this episode and completing the evaluation linked below.

Music Credit: “Fireflies and Stardust” by Kevin MacLeod

Licensed under Creative Commons by Attribution 3.0

Earn 0.75 contact hours of nursing continuing professional development (NCPD) by listening to the full recording and completing an evaluation at myoutcomes.ons.org by March 31, 2025. The planners and faculty for this episode have no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies to disclose. ONS is accredited as a provider of NCPD by the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Commission on Accreditation.

Learning outcome: The learner will report an increase in knowledge related to the ethical issues surrounding caring for personal acquaintances.

Episode Notes

To discuss the information in this episode with other oncology nurses, visit the ONS Communities.

To provide feedback or otherwise reach ONS about the podcast, email pubONSVoice@ons.org.

Highlights From Today’s Episode

“Nursing ethics is relationship centered because when your friend, family member, or colleague becomes a patient, that relationship can’t be uninformed by how you know that person before they got sick. The first thing is to recognize you know them, and caring or them poses some fairly unique challenges in terms of, ‘How do I maintain professional boundaries?’” Timestamp (TS) 02:55

“Many oncology nurses will see patients over years, so they develop relationships with them, and maybe you see those patients outside of the hospital. It’s hard to turn on and off the professional you from the personal you when those natural relationships form. So, how can you prepare yourself for that? One is: Think about it. If you’re in an environment like a small town or at an important cancer center even in a mid to large city, if you are the cancer center, people are going to come and want to be cared for. So, chances are pretty good that you will, one day, encounter someone that you know in this professional capacity.” TS 09:30

“It’s challenging because there’s this middle zone of helpfulness where on one end, there’s clearly a boundary violation, and on the other end is maybe a boundary crossing. And there’s no right line when we’re taking care of a family member or friend. It’s not like an alarm is going to go off when you cross a boundary and make a slip. So thinking about it in advance is really important, and talking with your colleagues about it openly.” TS 10:41

“Nurses are so well positioned to have conversations with patients about values and goals. If you can learn about patients’ values and goals, you can help them and physicians frame serious news they have to deliver. We’re the most trusted profession. People look to us and think they can have these conversations with us. . . . Some of these patients feel like your friends because you’ve cared for them for years. You have a deep relationship with them that’s been built over several years. Those are the times where you feel like somebody’s got to have this conversation, and I know the information. What is my role here? What does the code of ethics tell me I’m supposed to do?” TS 26:07

“People ask me all the time: ‘What would you do?’ Do I answer the question? When people ask me that question, I learned recently a really nice way to answer that question. ‘First of all, I’m not you, but I’d like to help you think about it. Can I help you think about this?’. . . And sometimes after all of that, patients will still press, ‘Well, what would you do?’ And as long as you’re clear and say, ‘I’m not you. If I tell you the decision I would make, I need to tell you why. And here’s the decision I would make and here’s why.’. . . What’s within your scope of practice? It is within everybody’s scope to ask permission to the patient and say, ‘Would it be okay if I shared something with you?’” TS 28:44

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