Feeling trapped and being torn: physicians' narratives about ethical dilemmas in hemodialysis care that evoke a troubled conscience

BMC Med Ethics. 2011 May 11;12:8. doi: 10.1186/1472-6939-12-8.


Background: This study is part of a major study about difficulties in communicating ethical problems within and among professional groups working in hemodialysis care. Describing experiences of ethically difficult situations that induce a troubled conscience may raise consciousness about ethical problems and thereby open the way to further reflection.The aim of this study was to illuminate the meanings of being in ethically difficult situations that led to the burden of a troubled conscience, as narrated by physicians working in dialysis care.

Method: A phenomenological hermeneutic method was used to analyze the transcribed narrative interviews with five physicians who had varying lengths of experience in nephrology.

Results: The analysis shows that physicians working in hemodialysis care suffered from a troubled conscience when they felt torn by conflicting demands and trapped in irresolution. They faced ethical dilemmas where they were forced to make crucial decisions about life or death, or to prioritize when squeezed between time restraints and professional and personal demands. In these ethical dilemmas the physicians avoided arousing conflicts, were afraid of using their authority, were burdened by moral responsibility and felt devalued and questioned about their way of handling the situation. The findings point to another way of encountering ethical dilemmas, being guided by their conscience. This mean sharing the agony of deciding how to act, being brave enough to bring up the crucial problem, feeling certain that better ways of acting have not been overlooked, being respected and confirmed regarding decisions made.

Conclusion: The meanings of being in ethically difficult situations that led to the burden of a troubled conscience in those working in hemodialysis care, indicate the importance of increasing the level of communication within and among various professional groups--to transform being burdened by a troubled conscience into using conscience as a guide--in situations where no way of solving the problem seems to be good.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior / ethics
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Conscience*
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Family
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Narration*
  • Nephrology / ethics
  • Nurses
  • Patient Participation
  • Physicians / ethics*
  • Physicians / psychology
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Renal Dialysis / ethics*
  • Renal Dialysis / nursing
  • Sweden
  • Tape Recording
  • Uncertainty
  • Withholding Treatment / ethics*
  • Workforce