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Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME)

The Standard Account of Moral Distress and Why We Should Keep It - New paper by Joan McCarthy and Settimio Monteverde

Joan McCarthy and Settimio Monteverde have published a paper on the standard account of moral distress. 


In the last three decades, considerable theoretical and empirical research has been undertaken on the topic of moral distress among health professionals. Understood as a psychological and emotional response to the experience of moral wrongdoing, there is evidence to suggest that—if unaddressed—it contributes to staff demoralization, desensitization and burnout and, ultimately, to lower standards of patient safety and quality of care. However, more recently, the concept of moral distress has been subjected to important criticisms. Specifically, some authors argue that the standard account of moral distress elucidated by Jameton (AWHONN’s Clin Issues Perinat Women’s Health 4(4):542–551, 1984) does not refer to a discrete phenomenon and/or that it is not sufficiently broad and that this makes measuring its prevalence among health professionals, and other groups of workers, difficult if not impossible. In this paper, we defend the standard account of moral distress. We understand it as a concept that draws attention to the social, political and contextual determinants of moral agency and brings the emotional landscape of the moral realm to the fore. Given the increasing pressure on health professionals worldwide to meet efficiency, financial and corporate targets and reported adverse effects of these for the quality and safety of patient care, we believe that further empirical research that deploys the standard account moral distress is timely and important.