Course Case Studies

Ethical Decision Making

Course #37073 - $75 • 15 Hours/Credits

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  • Participation Instructions
    • Review the course material online or in print.
    • Complete the course evaluation.
    • Review your Transcript to view and print your Certificate of Completion. Your date of completion will be the date (Pacific Time) the course was electronically submitted for credit, with no exceptions. Partial credit is not available.
Learning Tools - Case Studies


Nurse P is a staff nurse in the coronary care unit of a large medical center. One morning he is informed that a patient from the recovery room will soon be admitted to the coronary care unit and assigned to him. The patient, a white man, 67 years of age, with known history of myocardial infarction, also has cancer of the prostate. The initial hospital admission was for a transurethral resection, which had been aborted in the operating room when the patient developed cardiac changes following spinal anesthesia. The patient had been transported to the recovery room with the diagnosis of possible myocardial infarction and was to be transferred to the coronary care unit for management and evaluation.

Nurse P heads to the recovery room with a bed to pick up the patient. When he arrives, the patient is being coded. He had apparently gone into ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation in the recovery room and had required countershock, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), intubation, lidocaine, and vasopressors to maintain his blood pressure. A Swan-Ganz catheter was put in place. Recovery rhythm was sinus bradycardia to sinus tachycardia with occasional pauses. The patient was acidotic, in pulmonary edema by chest x-ray with an alveolar oxygen partial pressure (PaO2) of 50–60 mm Hg, a fraction of inspired oxygen (FIO2) of 100%.

During the events of the code, an attending cardiologist (Dr. D) passed by, observed the code, and made the following statement to the recovery room staff and coronary care unit resident: "Say, that's Mr. S. I know him from his last hospitalization of 1 month ago when I was attending in coronary care unit. I believe he has a living will." While the patient is stabilized, Dr. D calls the patient's relative, who happens to work in another part of the medical center. The relative also expresses the belief that Mr. S has a living will and does not want to receive extraordinary support measures. Dr. D relays this information to the other physicians, and there is general agreement that conservative measures to ensure support are indicated while the living will is located.

The coronary care unit resident and Nurse P transport Mr. S to the coronary care unit. When admitted, the patient's systolic blood pressure is 70 mm Hg while on dobutamine 8 mcg/kg and dopamine 26 mcg/kg. The patient occasionally responds to verbal commands, opens his eyes, grips Nurse P's hands, and responds to pain in the upper extremities (his lower extremities are still under the effects of the spinal anesthesia). Cardiac monitoring shows that the patient is still having sinus tachycardia.

At this point, the coronary care unit resident and an intern approach Nurse P and inform him that they believe that the present treatment of the patient is cruel. Upon locating old medical records, they learned that the patient had been designated "do not resuscitate" (DNR) on his last admission, and the patient is supposed to have a living will, although it has still not yet been located. They order Nurse P to slowly turn off the intravenous (IV) drip of dopamine and dobutamine. Nurse P is faced with an ethical dilemma.

The treatment modalities in Mr. S's treatment plan were basic: IV therapy, medication, and oxygen support. Some people might say the hospital team missed its chance when it failed to act decisively when it might have omitted the resuscitation of this patient. The IV, medication, and oxygen support may have been seen as obligatory for the patient and as supportive care.

Two reasons for this position might be offered. First, it might be argued that aggressive resuscitation is extraordinary, whereas an IV drip is ordinary. Another question might be whether the patient saw the IV as serving a purpose any more than the CPR served. Second, the difference between the CPR omission and stopping the IV drip is that one is an omission and the other would be a withdrawal. This raises the question of whether there is a difference between the two. Maintaining such a distinction might incline caregivers to be reluctant to start treatments such as an IV drip. Defenders of the view that there is no legitimate moral difference, believe that it is better to start a treatment when there is doubt about the correctness of the course and then withdraw if the time comes when it is clear that the patient would not have wanted the treatment to continue.

Here, however, Nurse P is being told by a resident and intern to turn off the IV drip on the basis of an unconfirmed belief that the patient has a living will and the fact that he reportedly had been designated for nonresuscitation on his last hospital admission. Nurse P must face the question of whether that is sufficient reason to stop the treatment even with the apparent approval of Mr. S's relative.

It is likely that the next of kin's judgment would be sufficient in the case where the patient's wishes cannot be determined, but that does not seem to lead to a clear answer here. First, we are not sure if the relative is Mr. S's next of kin. Moreover, even if it is, it seems possible that Mr. S has expressed his own wishes, and those wishes would surely take precedence. While the assumption is that he has a living will, no one seems to know exactly what it says. Some living wills are written for the purpose of insisting that treatment continue. The other possibility is that the living will could have been changed or voided by the patient between hospitalizations. Therefore, any action based on assumptions is taking considerable liberty. Also, any previous DNR order during another hospitalization would not be in effect for the present hospitalization. Again, there is the danger of paternal decision making by physicians and others for the patient [33].

More prudent action here must be considered in the light of the PSDA. Because a living will is thought to exist and a relative was found, no withdrawal in the treatment of Mr. S should occur. The following would be a reasonable and prudent decision making process on behalf of the patient, Mr. S: (1) the living will document should be obtained (there should have been a copy from the last hospitalization, or perhaps in the possession of other family members or with the primary care physician's office); (2) relatives should be notified, and those, by law and policy of the hospital, could consent for continuation or removal of treatment modalities in the absence of an advance directive; and (3) consideration of the patient's wishes and witnessed comments and conversations in the past regarding healthcare decisions to be made for him under specific circumstances should be ascertained, in the absence of an advance directive.

Learning Tools - Case Studies


Patient M, a woman, 34 years of age, is in critical condition and is scheduled for emergency surgery following a severe motor vehicle accident. You have been informed that her two children have been killed in the crash. She is almost hysterical and is asking you repeatedly about the condition of her children as you prepare her for emergency surgery. Do you tell the mother the truth about her children at this time or wait until after the surgery?

The ethical principles involved are beneficence and veracity (i.e., doing what is in your patient's best interest and telling the truth) and to a certain extent non-maleficence. This is an emotional issue, as most ethical dilemmas are, so be careful not to get into the "what if" trap (e.g., "What if Patient M were not in a critical condition, but was still facing surgery," or, "What if this woman was a close friend or family member?"). Remain as objective as possible when gathering facts and assessing the information and do not let emotions cause altered behavior.

Other considerations are personal values. Telling the truth is a concept that varies substantially between individuals. Personal views on absolute versus situational ethical reasoning will also affect the decision-making process and, perhaps, the definition of and decision-making use of the veracity principle. It is also very important to remember that there are other healthcare professionals to assist in the dilemma and help make a collaborative decision.

The other major consideration is knowing your hospital's policies in regard to deciding ethical issues. The groundwork should be there for you, and you should be familiar with it. If your workplace does not have policies that address making ethical decisions, you may want to refer to the suggested Guidelines for Ethical Decision Making in Patient Care, included later in this course. It may be helpful for your use and can be adapted to fit your institution.

Learning Tools - Case Studies


Patient J, a man 35 years of age, was involved in a fight and sustained a large laceration to the center of his forehead. The patient presents to the emergency department alert and oriented without significant findings other than the 10-cm laceration. However, his speech is slurred, and he readily admits to drinking 10 beers during the last few hours. The emergency department is very busy with more urgent cases, and the patient becomes impatient because of the wait. Patient J wishes to leave, but is urged by the ED staff to wait and is told that he should not drive. He is clearly lucid and states that he will not wait any longer and intends to drive himself home.

Using the acronym R.O.L.E. as their framework, note that the authors identify the same decision-making issues as the framework and algorithm examples discussed in this course.

R: Risks of medical treatment. In this case the proposed treatment bears little risk to the patient. Few people have life-threatening complications from laceration repair; therefore, the chance of the patient experiencing untoward harm from the procedure is remote.

O: Opinion of the patient. Why does the patient want to leave the emergency department? Does he understand the risks and benefits of the procedure? Is he competent to make this decision in his intoxicated state?

L: Life quality. Will not having the laceration repaired significantly affect the patient's quality of life? Would an unsutured wound healing for an extended period affect the patient in his profession and render him unable to earn a living? For example, would he be unable to wear required safety equipment, such as a helmet or goggles, because of the laceration? Is the patient involved in a profession, such as acting, where a potentially disfiguring scar could affect his career?

E: External factors. Is there any obligation on the part of the healthcare team to third parties (i.e., those who may be traveling at the same time as the patient and who may be endangered from a safety standpoint)?

The conflict in this case is between the patient's right to autonomy and self-determination and the staff's concern for his well-being and the safety of others. From both a legal and ethical standpoint, competent adults have the right to decide whether they will accept medical treatment. This right relates to the ethical principle of autonomy and the legal doctrine of informed consent.

In their professional education, nurses and physicians are frequently taught to apply very strict standards in the determination of patient capacity or the ability to make decisions. There is not allowance for medicated patients to sign consent forms, and frequently, it is assumed that developmentally disabled, intoxicated, and critically ill patients lack the capacity for decision making. In the emergency setting, in particular, there is a bias toward intervention and treatment if there is any doubt about patient capacity.

However, none of the above conditions negates the patient's ability to make responsible healthcare decisions. From an ethical standpoint, the patient is a capable decision maker if:

  • The patient can understand information relevant to the decision at hand.

  • The patient can interact and communicate with caregivers about the decision.

  • The patient can weigh the possible alternatives.

Given these guidelines, Patient J was clearly capable of refusing medical treatment, despite the feelings of the ED staff about the necessity of suturing the wound.

But what about the third parties who may be affected by Patient J's decision to drive while intoxicated? Do the healthcare professionals have a duty to prevent him from driving? In instances such as these, care providers must remember that their first duty is to the patient. A decision to violate patient confidentiality or to detain the patient against his will automatically places the caregivers in a position that may require justification of actions. If the patient is clearly too intoxicated to drive, a prudent course of action would be to document that the patient was asked to stay and that he was advised that if he chose to leave, his license plate number would be given to the police. Always check the policies and procedures, guidelines, and protocols in your facility to see what resources and assistance you have in these situations.

Learning Tools - Case Studies


(From the book Leadership Roles and Management Functions in Nursing: Theory and Application, in a chapter entitled "Ethical Issues" [43].)

You are a nurse on a pediatric unit. One of your patients is a girl, 15 months of age, with a diagnosis of failure to thrive. The mother has stated that the child appears emotional, cries a lot, and does not like to be held. You have been taking care of the infant for the two days since her admission, and she has smiled and laughed and held out her arms to everyone. She has eaten well.

There is something about the child's reaction to the mother's boyfriend that bothers you. The child appears to draw away from him when he visits. The mother is very young and seems to be rather immature, but appears to care for the child.

This is the second hospital admission for this child. Although you were not on duty for the first admission six weeks ago, you check the records and see that the child was admitted with the same diagnosis. While you are on duty today, the child's father calls and inquires about her condition. He lives several hundred miles away and requests that the child be hospitalized until the weekend (it is Wednesday) so that he can "check things out." He tells you that he feels the child is mistreated. He says he is also concerned about his ex-wife's four-year-old child from another marriage and is attempting to gain custody of that child in addition to his own child. From what little the father said, you are aware that the divorce was very bitter and that the mother has full custody.

You talk with the physician at length. He says that after the last hospitalization he requested that the community health agency call on the family. Their subsequent report to him was that the 4-year-old appeared happy and well and that the 15-month-old appeared clean, although underweight. There was no evidence to suggest child abuse. However, the community health agency plans to continue following the children. He says the mother has been good about keeping doctor appointments and has kept the children's immunizations up to date.

The pediatrician proceeds to write an order for discharge. He says that although he also feels somewhat uneasy, continued hospitalization is not justified and the state medical aid will not pay for the additional days.

When the mother and her boyfriend come to pick her up, the baby clings to you and refuses to go to the boyfriend. She is also very reluctant to go to the mother. All during the discharge you are extremely uneasy. When you see the car drive away, you feel very sad. What should you do?

Upon returning to the unit, you talk with your supervisor, who listens carefully and questions you at length. Finally she says, "It seems as if you have nothing concrete to act upon and are only experiencing feelings. I think you would be risking a lot of trouble for yourself and the hospital if you acted rashly at this time. Accusing people with no evidence and making them go through a traumatic experience is something I would hesitate to do."

You leave the supervisor's office still troubled. She did not tell you that you must do nothing, but you feel she would disapprove of further action on your part. The doctor also felt strongly that there was no reason to do more than was already being done. The child will be followed by community health nurses. Perhaps the disgruntled ex-husband was just trying to make trouble for his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. You would certainly not want anyone to have reported you or created problems regarding your own children. You remember how often your 5-year-old bruised himself when he was that age. He often looked like an abused child. You go about your duties and try to shake off your feeling.

If the pediatrician had not yet alerted the community health nurses or another child welfare agency, this option might have been taken by the nurse. She had reasonable suspicion given the child's reaction, underweight condition and ex-husband's concern. A call would not have been inappropriate. However, this action had already been taken. The child had no other signs that she was an abused child or that she was in danger of being abused. The nurse in this situation was going on strong feelings, but little evidence.

Learning Tools - Case Studies


From the Journal of Nursing Administration, we find a case to study regarding the public and professional responsibility of hospitals [44]. Hospitals throughout the country are held in high esteem within their communities for public service. They earn the public's trust by providing safe, good quality patient care. Many community hospitals serve as teaching sites for students' practicum programs, as did the hospital in this case study. Health facilities also have an obligation to share the responsibility for the quality of the nursing program by providing practice sites and nursing role models. In the case presented, the hospital should have been more proactive in addressing the quality of this practice issue.

MW is a senior nursing student at a local university. The university's nursing program requires a 200 hour practicum be completed six weeks before graduation. MW chose the intensive care unit (ICU) at a community hospital for her practicum site. MW contracted with one of the ICU staff nurses to serve as her preceptor for the six-week time period. The nurse preceptor is responsible for assisting MW to meet the course objectives. MW, the nurse preceptor, and the nursing instructor met before the practicum to discuss course objectives and expectations.

During the six weeks, MW was assigned to work the same schedule as the nurse preceptor, which was the night shift. Within the first week, the nurse preceptor reported to the ICU nurse manager that MW had displayed some inappropriate behaviors. These behaviors included inappropriate dress for work, an arrogant attitude toward the staff nurses, and considerable discussion about the amount of money MW would make as a nurse. The nurse manager and nurse preceptor discussed these issues with MW, and the behaviors improved somewhat.

By the end of the second week, the nurse preceptor reported another disturbing incident to the nurse manager. During the previous shift, MW and the nurse preceptor cared for a peritoneal dialysis patient. The nurse had explained the dialysis process to MW, and MW assisted with some of the procedure. After one of the dialysis exchanges, MW was instructed to empty and measure the dialysate output. Under the nurse preceptor's supervision, MW completed this procedure. MW and the nurse preceptor concurred that the amount of fluid removed from the patient was 1,400 cc. MW was given the responsibility of recording the amount on the dialysis flow record.

At the end of the shift, when intake and output was being calculated, the nurse preceptor noticed that the amount of dialysate fluid recorded by MW was 1,000 cc. When questioned about the discrepancy, MW responded that the recorded 1,000 cc amount was similar to the amounts recorded by other nurses. The nurse preceptor explained that the dialysate had been changed for the purpose of removing more fluid; thus, a greater amount of dialysate output was desired and expected from this dialysis exchange. MW stated that she did not want her recorded amount to be dramatically different from other recorded amounts. The nurse preceptor reinforced the reasoning behind the dialysis orders and that the actual amount removed is what needed to be recorded. When MW did not correct the dialysis flow record, the nurse preceptor recorded the actual dialysate output.

The nurse manager documented the incident and contacted the nursing instructor. The nurse manager informed the nursing instructor that MW's practicum in the ICU was terminated, and she would not be allowed to return to the ICU. The nurse manager requested that the incident be reviewed by the university's nursing program before MW continued the program.

The nursing instructor discussed the incident with MW. Later, the nursing instructor told the ICU nurse manager: "The incident does not appear to be serious. MW is completing her practicum requirement at another hospital and is doing great. She will be graduating with her class." Following this conversation, the ICU nurse manager discussed the incident with the hospital's director of nursing and sent a letter to the dean of nursing at the university documenting her concerns about MW's performance. The nurse manager never received a response to this letter. MW went on to another ICU clinical site to continue her practicum. When the nurse manager at the new facility was alerted to the previous incident, she monitored MW closely. She and the charge nurse of the ICU unit found similar inaccuracies in documentation. Further, documentation was made for vital signs by MW. However, she was observed during one shift to have not taken a blood pressure cuff or thermometer into any of her patient rooms. When the charge nurse took her own vital signs on the patients, none matched the documentation of MW.

When approached, MW indicated that "vital signs don't change much in four hours and probably don't need to be monitored that often." When questioned about the vital signs she had recorded, MW stated, "I don't want my charting to stand out and be different. None of my patients have been harmed, so I don't see what the problem is." MW was terminated from this practicum site as well and told she could not apply for a position there after graduation.

The ethical decision-making model outlined in this course can be helpful.

First, name the dilemma. The nurse is violating several ethical principles in this situation: beneficence, the duty to do good; non-maleficence, the duty to cause no harm; veracity, the duty to tell the truth; and respect for persons, the duty to honor the responsibilities of her position and to care for patients without bias, in this case, without regard for how she imagines she will be perceived.

Second, sort the issues. MW is displaying both unethical and illegal behaviors. She is falsifying patient information and potentially endangering her patients while disregarding her responsibilities. The nurse has shown that she values fitting-in over gathering accurate patient information.

Third, solve the problem. Ethical considerations and recommendations would include the reporting by the hospital to the school of nursing. The hospital should formally address concerns to the division director, dean of the school of nursing, and/or the governing board and request a written follow-up on the findings and actions of the investigation. The hospital should also investigate its State Nursing Practice Act and regulations relative to the governance of a student nurse's role. The hospital should obtain an understanding of the responsibility and accountability of the nursing faculty as well as the hospital's and staff nurse's role in this incident. The hospital should then seek and follow the advice of the State Board of Nurse Examiners. Specific actions to withhold the student's prospective licensure should not be sought unless required by the State Nursing Practice Act.

Fourth, take action. The hospital has an ethical responsibility to review the case in whatever forum its policy specifies. In many organizations, the hospital nursing leadership group is the forum. After the problem has been identified and reviewed with the individual, a probationary period should be given for the student's performance to improve. In this case, MW was counseled by the nurse preceptor in the first ICU practicum site. The school should have used the second practicum site as the probationary review. This was not done. Only the clinical nurses were aware of MW's move to another unit, and they began to evaluate her performance there. The school should have been a part of the process. Because this practice standard violation involved a student, a member of the school's faculty was included in the review. During the practice review process, the name of the individual must be disclosed and a determination made whether the practice violation is serious enough to warrant the student's suspension from clinical practice pending a complete investigation. Whatever the outcome, the contractual agreement between the hospital and the school should be reviewed to clarify guidelines. The decision makers must choose which course of action they feel best meets the particular situation and implement. Given the circumstances in this instance, termination of employment was deemed to be the most appropriate course of action.

Fifth, evaluate and reflect on the action. Time must be taken in re-evaluating with all parties involved how the decision-making process was handled. One question to be asked by the reviewers is: "Given what we know now, would we make the same decision today that we made then?" In this particular case scenario, and in any similar to it, as professionals, nurses have an obligation to act truthfully and to protect the patients (veracity and beneficence). Nurse leaders have an obligation to investigate practice concern and take the appropriate steps to correct practice problems of any nursing employee or student. This decision is absolutely justifiable.

  • Back to Course Home
  • Participation Instructions
    • Review the course material online or in print.
    • Complete the course evaluation.
    • Review your Transcript to view and print your Certificate of Completion. Your date of completion will be the date (Pacific Time) the course was electronically submitted for credit, with no exceptions. Partial credit is not available.