Alleviating Burdensome Beliefs Through a Care Ethics Approach

Doctor holding patient’s hand in hospital
Researchers suggest a care ethics approach to address specific needs of patients who struggle with thoughts of being a burden to others.

Compared with a principles-based approach, taking a care ethics approach to patients who believe they are a burden may be more effective for addressing moral dilemmas related to treatment, according to research published in Bioethics.

Two clinical ethicists from the department of medical humanities at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, shared the case of Mrs K, a 66-year-old patient with leukemia, and examined the ways in which physicians can approach treating a patient who feels like a burden.

Mrs K recently received a bone marrow transplant, but because of rejection symptoms, is now taking an antirejection treatment. Although a cure is possible, the treatment is both taxing and extensive and presents a host of physical and mental challenges. Although Mrs K had previously focused on survival, her mindset has shifted: She says that she is burdening her husband and feels that he deserves better. Mrs K feels that life is no longer worth living and has considered stopping her antirejection treatment, which will result in her death.

Noticing that Mrs K’s mood has been poor over a long period of time, the treating physician suggests antidepressant therapy; they believe that by treating the patient’s depression, the patient will be more optimistic about continuing the antirejection therapy. Mrs K’s husband — also a physician — strongly disagrees with this course of treatment. Mrs K’s care team contacts the clinical ethicist to address this moral dilemma.

In addressing this ethical issue, the authors consider 2 different approaches: the principle-based approach and a care ethics approach. The principle-based approach to addressing ethical concerns prioritizes respect for autonomy over other concerns. Conversely, the care ethics approach focuses on “being attentive and responsive to the caring needs of those involved in the care process.”

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That is, the moral dilemmas are evaluated in the context of the patient’s identity, biography, and relationship; autonomy is viewed as relational, not individual.

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag