Ethical uncertainty and COVID-19: exploring the lived experiences of senior physicians at a major medical centre

Journal of Medical Ethics 49 (4):275-282 (2023)
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Abstract

Given the wide-reaching and detrimental impact of COVID-19, its strain on healthcare resources, and the urgent need for—sometimes forced—public health interventions, thorough examination of the ethical issues brought to light by the pandemic is especially warranted. This paper aims to identify some of the complex moral dilemmas faced by senior physicians at a major medical centre in Saudi Arabia, in an effort to gain a better understanding of how they navigated ethical uncertainty during a time of crisis. This qualitative study uses a semistructured interview approach and reports the findings of 16 interviews. The study finds that participants were motivated by a profession-based moral obligation to provide care during the toughest and most uncertain times of the pandemic. Although participants described significant moral dilemmas during their practice, very few identified challenges as ethical in nature, and in turn, none sought formal ethics support. Rather, participants took on the burden of resolving ethical challenges themselves—whenever possible—rationalising oft fraught decisions by likening their experiences to wartime action or by minimising attention to the moral. In capturing these accounts, this paper ultimately contemplates what moral lessons can, and must be, learnt from this experience.

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