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Is moral distress a nursing epidemic?

Being a nurse can be empowering. You and your staff have the knowledge to ease pain, heal injury, fight disease, and save lives. And at times, you may feel that nurses—more than anyone else—know what is best for patients.

But are there ever times when you feel powerless because what you feel is best isn’t carried out?

A recent New York Times [1] article explores the issue of moral distress in nurses and physicians, which is defined as knowing what is ethically appropriate but being unable to act on it due to obstacles inherent in a situation. The article discusses an increasing amount of nurses and physicians feeling the “competing demands of administrators, insurance companies, lawyers, patients’ families and even one another,” who then must act in a manner opposing their personal and professional values.

A 2007 study conducted among 1,200 nurses [2] by the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing linked concerns protecting patients’ rights, supporting patients through end-of-life decisions, and fairly distributing resources as causes of moral distress. The effect? Twenty-five percent of nurses were found to experience moral distress, causing them to want to leave their positions. Another 41% failed to say they would choose nursing as a profession again.

Is moral distress prevalent at your facility?