96. Case: Surgery, Supported Decision Making and Capacity

Alex is a 27 year old resident in a supported living facility.  She has a diagnosis of developmental delay.  She is close with her younger brother, Anton.  Alex has identified Anton as someone who helps her to make decisions.  The organization that runs the facility where Alex lives has recently adopted a policy in favour of using supported decision making whenever possible.

Alex has a number of cavities and pain in her teeth is interfering with her ability to eat a wide range of foods.  She eats a soft food diet, and the staff at her facility have raised concerns about the long-term health effects of both untreated cavities and the soft food diet.

After some negative experiences in childhood with blood draws that included being held down and restrained, Alex is intensely afraid of needles and white coats.

Anton has had discussions with Alex about different options that the local dentist can provide, but Alex is adamant that she doesn’t want any dental interventions.  Alex says she will just wait until all her teeth fall out and then get dentures.  She says she’d rather deal with the long-term consequences of eating the soft food diet than face a dental appointment.  Anton observed some of Alex’s interactions with medical care when they were children, and confirms that the experiences were harrowing.

Alex and Anton’s mother is listed as Alex’s substitute decision maker, and the staff feel that Alex’s mother would be willing to authorize sedation and surgery to extract the teeth so that Alex could be fitted for dentures and return to eating a normal, varied diet (which she was happy with before her teeth started hurting).

Some staff members see this is a situation where concerns about Alex’s well-being should override the principled commitment to supported decision making.  They have identified this tension as causing some of them moral distress, and have requested support from the ethics committee.


  • What will make this case clinically challenging?
  • What will make this case ethically challenging?
  • How might the ethics committee support the team in dealing with their moral distress?
  • What would change (if anything) if Alex hadn’t had the experience of being restrained for blood draws as a child?

91. Case: Franklin Isn’t Safe at Home

Franklin Pictou is a 68 year old with limited mobility receiving post-surgical follow up care in the home. He wishes to remain in his dwelling, which is not especially clean and poses hazards to him (uneven stairs, loose carpets, wood stove for heat, and mould) and to health care providers (bed bugs).

He chooses to stay at home because, as he says, “he likes it here” and he cannot find an alternative living situation that he can afford in which his large dog would be welcome.

Which factor do you think is most important in Franklin’s choice of where to live?

  • Cost of alternatives
  • Familiarity of home
  • Comfort of home
  • Having his dog with him
  • Feeling in control of the situation

75. Case: Cultural Competence: Truth and Reconciliation in Action


Case 75: Cultural Competence: Truth and Reconciliation in Action

Alex Sylliboy has been referred to the diabetes clinic and this is his first appointment.  He identifies as Indigenous on the intake form.  Andrew Sullivan, the nurse, has read recently that the experience of residential schools has long-lasting, intergenerational effects on health, but isn’t sure if he should ask about it in the context of addressing Alex’s diabetes and is also uncertain about how to bring it up.


  • What are the ethics concerns raised here?
  • How might Andrew proceed with this encounter?
  • What are some words or phrasing that Andrew might find helpful?



66. Case: Blood Transfusions

Joyce Skinner is a 38 year old woman with non-curative leukemia. She is the single mother of two children, ages 11 and 8, and her ex-husband is ‘out of the (parental) picture’. Since her leukemia diagnosis, Joyce has approached her progressive hematological cancer in an assertive manner, seeing it as her responsibility to fight to stay alive and look after her children for as long as possible. Over the past few years, her attending hemato-oncologist, Dr. Jones, has arranged for her to be a research participant in a variety of experimental chemotherapy trials, which have extended her life beyond what was initially anticipated. However, about 6 months ago, Joyce’s leukemia moved into a treatment-resistant phase and her medical regime is currently palliative in nature and intent. Joyce is now residing in a hematology clinical unit of a tertiary care hospital where she is followed regularly by a palliative care consultant, Dr. Miller. In the last 3 weeks, the frequency of blood transfusions required to keep Joyce’s hemoglobin at a low functional level has progressively increased such that she is now receiving transfusions every second day. Joyce is not eligible for transfer to the hospital’s Palliative Care Unit while blood transfusions are a component of her care plan. She is very weak and is confined to her hospital bed. Her children visit her regularly with their aunt, Cathy, who has assumed parental responsibility for them. They have missed a considerable amount of school time in the last few months.

Despite the honest information provided by Dr. Jones, Joyce is in some denial about her grim prognosis and strongly believes that she can continue to ‘beat the odds’. She remains reasonably clear-headed and is capable of making health care and treatment decisions on her own. She insists that Dr. Jones continue the blood transfusions indefinitely. Her sister and Drs. Jones and Miller are of the shared opinion that the transfusions should be discontinued and that Joyce should be transferred to the Palliative Care Unit.

Dr. Jones, who sits on the provincial blood management committee, is aware that there has been an exceptional demand on existing provincial blood resources in the last few weeks due to a number of major highway accidents. The hospital is chronically under-resourced. There are typically one or more patients waiting in the emergency department for admission to the hematology clinical unit.



  1. What do you think is important to Joyce (in terms of her personal values)? What do you suspect about her personality structure?


  1. On what basis, if any, could Joyce claim a right to continue receiving blood transfusions? What other ethics principles and values are at play in these circumstances?


  1. What weight in the decision making should be given to the clinical judgments of Drs. Jones and Miller?


  1. Should Cathy (as an engaged family member) participate and have some authority in the decision making? Would the nature of this authority change if Joyce loses capacity?


  1. Is ‘bedside rationing’ of limited health resources an appropriate form of health resource allocation?


  1. With their mandates to manage limited health resources prudently, should the Nova Scotia Health Authority and/or the provincial Department of Health & Wellness have a role(s) in such end-of-life decision making?


  1. Under what circumstances, if any, would it be ethical to deny Joyce’s request for further blood transfusions?



54. CASE: Professional Role

While doing a weekday home visit to an elderly patient, a VON nurse in a small community finds the patient’s son at home. The patient has mentioned that her son teaches at the local elementary school, but he has never been present during any of the nurse’s previous visits to the house.

On a weekday visit he appears to be drinking heavily and the patient seems uncomfortable and ill at ease.  During the next few weeks the son is there on several more occasions and appears to be either drunk or “hungover”. The nurse is also a member of the town’s school board.

  • What is this health professional’s responsibility to her patient? To her patient’s son?
  • What should her immediate concerns be?
  • What is her responsibility as a member of the school board?
  • How should she proceed in this situation?
  • Can/should this individual segregate her role as a nurse with her role as a school board member?
  • Should she mention what she knows about the son/teacher to her colleagues at the school board?
  • How are the ethics issues at hand affected by the rural setting?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Professional boundaries
  • Duty to provide a safe work environment
  • Living at risk
  • Duty to accommodate
  • Duty to provide care
  • Community and family relationships
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Compliance with policies and procedures
  • Respect for privacy and confidentiality
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Patient safety

51. CASE: Confidentiality and Privacy

Joanne Baker, a nurse practitioner in a small community, prescribed a partial opiate agonist to a young man, Brian, for treatment of prescription opiate dependence. Brian is talented and plays on the same soccer team as Joanne’s son.

Three weeks later, Brian is found unresponsive after an overdose of opiates, requiring intubations and medical evacuation to a city three hours away. He recovered and didn’t want others in the community to discover that he had attempted suicide. He began to spread rumours that Joanne was incompetent and prescribed a medication that she didn’t know how to use.

Another patient brought up these rumors during his own appointment with Joanne. Joanne wishes she could set the record straight, and explain that Brian obtained opiates from a provider in a neighbouring city and had taken these in large quantities in a suicide attempt. She is unsure of how to discuss the situation without breaching Brian’s patient confidentiality.

  • How should Joanne proceed in this situation?
  • How can she clear her name/ reputation without breaching confidentiality?
  • What are the competing values in this case?
  • What role/ responsibility should Brian have in the outcome of this situation?
  • What is the specific ethics conflict or question in this case?
  • How is this ethics conflict affected by the rural context?
  • What resources are available to help Joanne address the situation?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Professional boundaries
  • Community and family relationships
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Compliance with policies and procedures
  • Respect for privacy and confidentiality
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Patient-provider relationships
  • Professional competence
  • Transparency
  • Stigma
  • Vulnerability
  • Respect for human dignity

48. CASE: Shared Experience

You have recently started working as an RN in cardiology at the local pediatric health centre. One of the first cases you are involved with hits a little close to home. It involves a 2-year old patient named Kira who has a congenital cardiac abnormality. The clinical circumstances are similar to what you experienced with your son, Bradley, about four years ago. Bradley spent several weeks in hospital for investigations and you and your partner were faced with a difficult decision about whether to proceed with cardiac surgery. With some understandable trepidation and anxiety, you and your partner agreed to the surgery and Bradley came through it just fine. However, given the nature of the cardiac abnormality, you know how easily it could have turned out differently. You now see Kira’s parents faced with the same difficult choice. They are struggling with what decision to make and are very anxious.

  • Should you discuss your own experience with Kira’s parents?
  • If so, what might you choose to disclose?
  • What biases might you contribute to the situation – should you try to minimize their influence?
  • How will you balance your professional expertise and personal experience?

Part 2

It is about a year later and you run into Kira’s parents in the hallway outside the cafeteria. They have just come from the parents’ bereavement group and are having a tough time living without their daughter. They are organizing a charity event in their community to celebrate their daughter’s life and to generate funds for the pediatric cardiology program. Both parents express how much they would appreciate it if you came to the event and spoke at it in the capacity of one of the individuals who cared for their daughter. The event is scheduled for six weeks from now and the parents indicate that they need to know as soon as possible whether you can participate.

Should you go to this event? If so, should you be a speaker? 

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Compliance with policies and procedures
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Patient-provider relationships
  • Honesty, trust and truth-telling
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Family and community relationships
  • Professional boundaries

47. CASE: Collegial Responsibilities

You are a pediatric critical care specialist working in the ICU taking care of a newborn infant who suffered a severe, prolonged reduction in blood flow to his brain at the time of birth. The consulting neurologist has indicated that the infant’s prognosis for functional neurological recovery is very poor in the unlikely event that he survives the next few days.  You and the neurologist have spoken at length with the parents about the grim prognosis. They have decided that withdrawal of intensive care modalities and the initiation of optimal palliative care are consistent with their values. They have requested a day to hold their baby and to allow extended family to come and be with them prior to stopping the mechanical ventilation.
You have now gone home after handing the case over to a physician colleague who is on call for the unit that night, explaining that the family will notify staff when they are ready to withdraw life support.

You receive an agitated call from the ICU charge nurse at 2 am, as the family has requested life support to be discontinued but she is refusing to write an order for this, saying that she knows nothing about it. The parents are very distressed about this turn of events.

[Modified version of a case authored by Alixe Howlett]

  • What are the boundary issues, if any, in this case?         
  • Are there issues with communication between team members?
  • How should this be addressed?         
  • How should you deal with this situation when receiving the call at 2 am?         
  • Who should be involved in deciding next steps?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Compliance with policies and procedures
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Patient-provider relationships
  • Trust
  • Respect for patient autonomy
  • Respect for dignity
  • Patient-family relationships
  • End of life decision-making
  • Patient-centered care
  • Professional boundaries

46. CASE: Team Work?

Judy, who had worked as a senior social worker in a mental health setting for 12 years, was hired as a team social worker in a community health care organization. Shirley, one of the team RNs, perceived Judy as hesitant and ineffective in patient care planning meetings. Other team members also found Judy to be too hesitant in making decisions, often rolling their eyes when Judy asked team members for their opinions. Despite their concerns about Judy’s hesitancy, team members also complained when Judy did not consult them before making a patient care decision. As Judy experienced these mixed messages, she became more guarded in her social work assessments.

The inter-professional team on which Judy was placed had a culture of socializing together after work. Initially, team members invited Judy to join them, but she did not have time due to the care that she was providing for her mother after work and also was uncertain about how much to socialize with her colleagues.

When the team was together after work, they discussed Judy’s behaviour, often noting that her mode of dress was out of style. Carol, the team facilitator, would occasionally join the rest of the team for a drink after work. During one of these nights, Shirley complained to Carol that Judy was not doing her job. She also mentioned that the team did not like Judy because she did not socialize with them and wouldn’t disclose information about her personal life as they all had done with each other. The nursing assistant and dietician on the team told Carol that they saw Judy as being very unfriendly. The following week, Carol spoke with Fran, the social work supervisor, stating that Judy was a problem and she wasn’t sure that Judy would work out with this team.

In her monthly supervisory meeting, Fran asked Judy how things were going with her team. As Judy’s eyes began to tear she said that she was thinking of leaving. Judy said that that she hadn’t realized how hard it would be to work with a team, and commented that the team members kept comparing her to a former team social worker who was not liked by them.

Judy told Fran that the team seemed fairly uncomfortable with mental health issues and that she was shocked when the team made derogatory comments about patients – i.e., that some were dirty and smelly or that the team couldn’t stand certain patients. And, in terms of the team, Judy wasn’t sure what to do because someone had told her that once you were on Shirley’s bad side that you were always on her bad side.

[Case modified from: P.G. Clark, C. Coot, T.J.K. Drinka, 2007, Theory and practice in interprofessional ethics: A framework for understanding ethical issues in health care teams, Journal of Interprofessional Care 21(6): 591-603.]

  • Is this a human resources issue or an ethics one?
  • How would you handle this situation?
  • Are there underlying and/or competing values that should be considered?


Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Care for the vulnerable
  • Community health ethics
  • Health care provider relationships
  • Moral distress
  • Organizational culture
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Professional competence
  • Professional boundaries
  • Respect for privacy and confidentiality
  • Respect for professional integrity
  • Staff morale

36. CASE: Fee-For-Service Care (Complementary/ Alternative Practices)

A registered nurse is also a registered massage therapist and runs a private practice out of her home.  Physicians often refer patients to her privately for massage therapy, but have also begun asking this RN to provide massage services while on duty in the hospital. She feels uncomfortable about this and after speaking with her manager and director, requests an ethics consult.

  • What are the main ethics issues to think about in this situation?
  • What other issues need addressing in this case?
  • How would your committee respond to this request?

Some Values and Ethics Issues to Consider

  • Compliance with policy
  • Resource allocation
  • Health care provider relationships
  • Organizational culture
  • Overlapping roles and responsibilities
  • Professional boundaries