First Published October 8, 2017 Review Article
The concept of moral distress (MD) was introduced to nursing by Jameton who defined MD as arising, ‘when one knows the right thing to do, but institutional constraints make it nearly impossible to pursue the right course of action’. MD has subsequently gained increasing attention in nursing research, the majority of which conducted in North America but now emerging in South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Studies have highlighted the deleterious effects of MD, with correlations between higher levels of MD, negative perceptions of ethical climate and increased levels of compassion fatigue among nurses. Consensus is that MD can negatively impact patient care, causing nurses to avoid certain clinical situations and ultimately leave the profession. MD is therefore a significant problem within nursing, requiring investigation, understanding, clarification and responses. The growing body of MD research, however, is arguably failing to bring the required clarification but rather has complicated attempts to study it. The increasing number of cited causes and effects of MD means the term has expanded to the point that according to Hanna and McCarthy and Deady, it is becoming an ‘umbrella term’ that lacks conceptual clarity referring unhelpfully to a wide range of phenomena and causes. Without, however, a coherent and consistent conceptual understanding, empirical studies of MD’s prevalence, effects, and possible responses are likely to be confused and contradictory.
A useful starting point is a systematic exploration of existing literature to critically examine definitions and understandings currently available, interrogating their similarities, differences, conceptual strengths and weaknesses. This article presents a narrative synthesis that explored proposed necessary and sufficient conditions for MD, and in doing so, this article also identifies areas of conceptual tension and agreement.