The need for palliative care in the intensive care unit is increasing. Whether gaps and variations in palliative care education and use are associated with moral distress among critical care nurses is unknown.


To examine critical care nurses’ perceived knowledge of palliative care, their recent experiences of moral distress, and possible relationships between these variables.


In this quantitative, descriptive study, survey questionnaires were distributed to 517 critical care nurses across 7 intensive care units at an academic health center in Virginia. Validated instruments were used to measure participants’ perceptions of palliative care in their practice setting and their recent experiences of moral distress.


A total of 167 completed questionnaires were analyzed. Fewer than 40% of respondents reported being highly competent in any palliative care domain. Most respondents had little palliative care education, with 38% reporting none in the past 2 years. Most respondents reported moral distress during the study period, and moral distress levels differed significantly on the basis of perceived use of palliative care (P = .03). Respondents who perceived less frequent use of palliative care tended to experience higher levels of moral distress.


Many critical care nurses do not feel prepared to provide palliative care. When palliative care access is perceived as inadequate, nurses may be more apt to experience moral distress. Health system leaders should prioritize palliative care training for critical care nurses and their colleagues and empower them to reduce barriers to palliative care.

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