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Enabling first and second year doctors to negotiate ethical challenges in end-of-life care: a qualitative study


Objective To understand the unique ethical and professional challenges confronting first and second year doctors in caring for people who are dying, and to learn what factors help or hinder them in managing these.

Method 6 first year and 7 second year doctors were interviewed one-to-one by a senior palliative medicine physician (SD), quarterly over 12 months, using a semistructured approach. Thematic analysis was conducted with the findings, following the general inductive approach.

Results 21 hours of recorded interviews were analysed by SD, and ethical and professional issues were identified. These were discussed with SW, and sorted into seven broad categories. The participants’ accounts of the issues convey a strong ethical sensitivity, developed through their undergraduate training. A recurring challenge for them through their first 12–24 months of work as doctors is being responsible for the decisions, knowing that what they do can have life and death consequences. The participants frequently describe senior doctors as an important source of support, and the lack of such support as leading to moral distress and demoralisation. Another important factor is having opportunity to discuss and reflect on the decisions after they are made. Where such reflection had been facilitated properly, participants displayed considerable growth in their ability to manage ethical challenges.

Conclusion Senior support and opportunities for reflection need to be recognised as key factors in enabling first and second year to respond appropriately to ethical challenges in end-of-life care, and in sustaining their well-being through this critical stage of their professional life.

  • end of life care
  • education and training
  • clinical decisions

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