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Open Access Research article

Be known, be available, be mutual: a qualitative ethical analysis of social values in rural palliative care

Barbara Pesut1*, Joan L Bottorff12 and Carole A Robinson1

Author Affiliations

1 School of Nursing, University of British Columbia Okanagan, 3333 University Way, Kelowna, BC, V1V 1V7, Canada

2 Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention, University of British Columbia Okanagan, 3333 University Way, Kelowna, BC, V1V 1V7, Canada

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BMC Medical Ethics 2011, 12:19  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-12-19

Published: 28 September 2011

Abstract

Background

Although attention to healthcare ethics in rural areas has increased, specific focus on rural palliative care is still largely under-studied and under-theorized. The purpose of this study was to gain a deeper understanding of the values informing good palliative care from rural individuals' perspectives.

Methods

We conducted a qualitative ethnographic study in four rural communities in Western Canada. Each community had a population of 10, 000 or less and was located at least a three hour travelling distance by car from a specialist palliative care treatment centre. Data were collected over a 2-year period and included 95 interviews, 51 days of field work and 74 hours of direct participant observation where the researchers accompanied rural healthcare providers. Data were analyzed inductively to identify the most prevalent thematic values, and then coded using NVivo.

Results

This study illuminated the core values of knowing and being known, being present and available, and community and mutuality that provide the foundation for ethically good rural palliative care. These values were congruent across the study communities and across the stakeholders involved in rural palliative care. Although these were highly prized values, each came with a corresponding ethical tension. Being known often resulted in a loss of privacy. Being available and present created a high degree of expectation and potential caregiver strain. The values of community and mutuality created entitlement issues, presenting daunting challenges for coordinated change.

Conclusions

The values identified in this study offer the opportunity to better understand common ethical tensions that arise in rural healthcare and key differences between rural and urban palliative care. In particular, these values shed light on problematic health system and health policy changes. When initiatives violate deeply held values and hard won rural capacity to address the needs of their dying members is undermined, there are long lasting negative consequences. The social fabric of rural life is frayed. These findings offer one way to re-conceptualize healthcare decision making through consideration of critical values to support ethically good palliative care in rural settings.

Keywords:
palliative care; qualitative research; ethnography; ethics; rural health services