Ethical conflicts in the prehospital setting

James G. Adams*, Robert Arnold, Laura Siminoff, Allan B. Wolfson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Study objective: To assess the range of ethical conflicts that confront prehospital care providers. Design: Convenience sample, from October 1989 to January 1990. Setting: An urban advanced life support emergency medical service that transports approximately 3,000 patients per month. Methods: Six hundred seven paramedic responses were analyzed by a single observer. An ethical conflict was identified when the paramedic faced a dilemma about what "ought to be done" and the paramedic's values conflicted or potentially conflicted with the patient's. Cases with potential ethical consequence were brought to experts in medical ethics and epidemiology for further analysis and classification. Results: Ethical conflicts arose in 14.4% of paramedic responses (88 of 607 cases). Twenty-seven percent of the conflicts involved issues of informed consent, such as refusal of treatment or transport, conflicts of hospital destination, treatment of minors, and consent for research. Difficulties regarding the duty of the paramedics, usually under threatening circumstances, accounted for 19% of the dilemmas encountered. Requests for limitation of resuscitation accounted for 14%. Other circumstances that presented ethical conflicts involved questions of patient competence (17%), resource allocation (10%), confidentiality (8%), truth telling (3%), and training (1%). Conclusion: The data demonstrate a range of ethical conflicts in the prehospital setting and point to areas in which policy needs to be developed. The data also can be used in a prehospital ethics curriculum for paramedics and physicians. Because case sampling was not strictly random, absolute conclusions should not be drawn regarding the frequency of the dilemmas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1259-1265
Number of pages7
JournalAnnals of Emergency Medicine
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1992


  • ethics
  • prehospital care prehospital care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


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