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The principle of justice in patient priorities in the intensive care unit: the role of significant others


Background: Theoretically, the principle of justice is strong in healthcare priorities both nationally and internationally. Research, however, has indicated that questions can be raised as to how this principle is dealt with in clinical intensive care.

Objective: The objective of this article is to examine how significant others may affect the principle of justice in the medical treatment and nursing care of intensive care patients.

Method: Field observations and in-depth interviews with physicians and nurses in intensive care units (ICU). Emphasis was placed on eliciting the underlying rationale for prioritisations in clinical intensive care with particular focus on clinicians’ considerations when limiting ICU treatment.

Results: Significant others could induce an unintentional discrimination of ICU patients. Family members who were demanding received more time and attention for both the patient and themselves. Patients’ and families’ status and position and/or an interesting medical diagnosis seemed to govern the clinicians’ priorities of patients and families—consciously as well as unconsciously. The clinicians emphasised that patient information given through families was important. However, patients’ preferences and values conveyed to clinicians through their families were not always taken seriously. This even applied in cases with very serious prognoses and an explicit patient wish to forego life-prolonging treatment.

Conclusion: The principle of justice was violated when qualified attention was given to significant others, and through this also to patients. Attention given to significant others was influenced by the healthcare workers’ professional and personal values, attitudes and interests.

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