A qualitative study exploring moral distress in the ICU team: The importance of unit functionality and intrateam dynamics

Courtenay R. Bruce, Susan M. Miller, Janice L. Zimmerman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


Objective: Our study objectives were to determine the key sources of moral distress in diverse critical care professionals and how they manage it in the context of team-based models. Design: Qualitative case study methodology using three recently resolved clinical cases. Setting: A medical and surgical adult ICU in a 900-bed academic, tertiary Houston hospital. Subjects: Twenty-nine ICU team members of diverse professional backgrounds interviewed between March 2013 and July 2013. Interventions: None. Measurements and Main Results: All members of the ICU team reported experiencing moral distress. Intrateam discordance served as a key source of distress for all healthcare disciplines. Interviewees identified two situations where intrateam discordance creates moral distress: 1) situations involving initiation or maintenance of nonbeneficial life-sustaining treatments and 2) situations involving a lack of full disclosure about interventions. Healthcare professionals engaged in a variety of management techniques, which can be grouped according to maladaptive behaviors (pas-de-deux, "fighting," and withdrawing) and constructive behaviors (venting, mentoring networks, and building team cohesion). Maladaptive behaviors were more common in the surgical ICU. Constructive behaviors were more prevalent in the medical ICU and typically used by nurses and ancillary staff members. Physicians report becoming detached as morally distressing cases unfold, whereas nurses report becoming more emotionally invested. Conclusions: This study identified the ways in which moral distress manifests across critical care disciplines in different ICU environments. Our results have potential implications for patient care. First, when clinicians alter the content of their goals-of-care conversations with patients or families to accommodate intrateam discordance (as part of the "pas-de-deux"), subsequent decisions regarding medical care may be compromised. Second, when different team members respond differently to the same case - with nurses becoming more emotionally invested and physicians becoming more withdrawn - communication gaps are likely to occur at critical moral distress junctures. Finally, our findings suggest that physicians and any healthcare professionals in surgical units might be susceptible to unmitigated moral distress because they report less engagement in constructive behaviors to recalibrate their distress. ©

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)823-831
Number of pages9
JournalCritical Care Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 20 2015


  • Critical care
  • Life-sustaining treatment
  • Moral distress
  • Team discordance
  • Team dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Critical Care and Intensive Care Medicine


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