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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 285-289

Existential suffering, futility, and the mental stress of moral distress in health care

Department of Pediatrics, Division of Hematology and Oncology, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver; Provincial Health Services Authority, British Columbia, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Philip Crowell
British Columbia Children's Hospital, Office 2C19, 4500 Oak St. Vancouver, British Columbia, V6H 3N1
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/hm.hm_30_22

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This article explores the relationship of existential suffering and moral distress by examining life-threatening medical situations and the distress on persons engaged in medical ethics decision-making. The aim and focus are to articulate how existential suffering experienced by the patient and family generates moral distress in the health-care team as they perceive ongoing treatments as futile. Suffering and existential suffering pose a challenge ethically and therapeutically on a number of levels, first in terms of determining what a patient wants to be addressed or what a substitute decision-maker needs to consider in fulfilling the best interests of the patient who is suffering. Second, when there are unrelenting and intolerable sufferings, a difficult medical assessment is sometimes made that any further treatments are “futile,” which leads to conflict with the family and moral distress for the medical team. Moral distress and mental stress have physiological, psychological, social/behavioral, and existential-spiritual dimensions. Existential suffering consists of a constellation of factors, not only severe pain but also the inclusion of harms from the illness, which are irreversible, irremediable, and unrelenting, adding to the total suffering. This article argues that the existential suffering of the patient and family has a special moral status that significantly and legitimately guides decisions at the end of life, and addressing the existential suffering of the patient/family can relieve levels of moral distress for the health-care team.

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