Research| Volume 42, ISSUE 1, P37-46, January 2016

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“It’s a Burden You Carry”: Describing Moral Distress in Emergency Nursing

Published:September 27, 2015DOI:



      Moral distress in nursing has been studied in many settings, but there is a paucity of research on moral distress as it manifests in the emergency department. One study suggests a correlation between moral distress and aspects of burnout, and other researchers report that nurses have considered leaving their position or even their profession because of moral distress. Further exploration of these issues may provide insight into their effects on ED patient care and the emergency nursing profession. The purpose of this study was to explore the nature of moral distress as it is experienced and described by emergency nurses.


      A qualitative, exploratory design was employed using semi-structured focus groups for data collection. Using an iterative process, transcripts were analyzed for emerging themes by the research team. Six researchers analyzed the transcripts using a thematic analysis approach.


      Themes from the data included dysfunctional practice arena, being overwhelmed, and adaptive/maladaptive coping. Participants described, overall, a profound feeling of not being able to provide patient care as they wanted to.


      Causes of moral distress in emergency nurses are environment driven, not incident driven, as is described in other settings, and include a high-acuity, high-demand, technical environment with insufficient resources. Interventions should be targeted to improve environmental factors that contribute to the moral distress of emergency nurses. Future research should focus on the development and validation of an instrument to measure moral distress in this setting.

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      Lisa A. Wolf, Member, Pioneer Valley Chapter, is Director, Institute for Emergency Nursing Research, Emergency Nurses Association, Des Plaines, IL.


      Cydne Perhats is Senior Associate, Institute for Emergency Nursing Research, Emergency Nurses Association, Des Plaines, IL.


      Altair M. Delao is Senior Associate, Institute for Emergency Nursing Research, Emergency Nurses Association, Des Plaines, IL.


      Michael D. Moon, Member, San Antonio Chapter, is Associate Professor, University of the Incarnate Word, San Antonio, TX.


      Paul R. Clark, Member, Kentuckiana Chapter, is Assistant Professor, University of Louisville School of Nursing, Louisville, KY, and System Educator, Norton Healthcare Institute for Nursing, Louisville, KY.


      Kathleen E. Zavotsky, Member, West Central New Jersey Chapter, is Director, Nursing Research, Advanced Practice and Education, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick, NJ.

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