Critical care clinicians routinely encounter ethically complex situations. Ethical conflicts sometimes arise from different perspectives regarding goals of care and moral obligations. These conflicts contribute to providers’ moral distress and burnout and can erode trust between patients, families, and clinicians.


To explore the most disturbing and most frequent types of ethically complex situations; compare clinicians’ perceptions of their own, each other’s, and shared moral obligations for providing quality care in these situations; and examine perceptions of communication and teamwork.


A national, web-based survey was made available to members of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and the Society for Critical Care Medicine. The survey included rank order, rating, and open-ended questions.


Nurses and physicians ranked similarly the most frequent and disturbing ethical situations encountered during critical care practice. Nurses and physicians rated similarly physicians’ moral obligations, but their ratings of nurses’ moral obligations differed, with physicians giving lower ratings. Physicians also were more likely than nurses to report higher levels of trust (90.6% vs 66.8%) and more satisfaction with team communication (81.3% vs 66.9%). Narrative comments revealed embedded, entwined, and sometimes divergent expectations about moral obligations, which interfered with effective teamwork during ethically complex situations.


Teamwork in critical care would benefit from acknowledgment of and clear communication about role-specific, interdependent, and shared moral obligations. Opportunities for routine, team-based dialogue about ethical aspects of care and moral obligations could reduce role ambiguity and ethical conflicts.

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