Ethical conflicts, often leading to poor teamwork and moral distress, are very challenging to patients, patients’ families, and health care providers. A proactive approach to ethical conflicts may improve patient care outcomes.


To examine acceptability and feasibility of an ethics screening and early intervention tool for use by nurses caring for critically ill patients.


Twenty-eight nurses in 2 medical centers applied the ethics screening tool to 55 patient situations. Nurses assessed situations for risk factors and early indicators of ethical conflicts and analyzed level of risk. At study completion, nurses participated in focus group discussions about the tool’s benefits and challenges. Frequency counts were performed on risk factors and early indicators of ethical conflicts. Content analysis was used on written explanations regarding high-, medium-, and low-risk situations and on focus group data.


Older patients with multiple comorbid conditions and aggressive treatments were frequently assessed to be at risk for ethical conflicts. Nurses who witnessed patients’ suffering and deterioration were likely to initiate the screening process. The most prominent family risk factors included unrealistic expectations and adamancy about treatment. The most prominent early indicators were signs of patients’ suffering, unrealistic expectations, and providers’ own moral distress. High-risk situations averaged a greater number of risk factors and early indicators than did medium- and low-risk situations. Certain risk factors featured prominently in high-risk situations.


A phenomenon of shared suffering emerged from the study and signifies the importance of relational strategies such as routine family conferences and ethics consultation.

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