Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Medical Ethics and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

Ethical challenges in surgery as narrated by practicing surgeons

Kirsti Torjuul1*, Ann Nordam2 and Venke Sørlie3

Author Affiliations

1 Sør-Trøndelag University College, Faculty of Nursing, Trondheim, Norway

2 Centre for Medical Ethics, University of Oslo, Norway

3 Institute of Nursing and Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo, Norway

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Medical Ethics 2005, 6:2  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-6-2

Published: 28 February 2005



The aim of this study was to explore the ethical challenges in surgery from the surgeons' point of view and their experience of being in ethically difficult situations.


Five male and five female surgeons at a university hospital in Norway were interviewed as part of a comprehensive investigation into the narratives of nurses and physicians about being in such situations. The transcribed interview texts were subjected to a phenomenological-hermeneutic interpretation.


No differences in ethical reasoning between male and female surgeons were found. They reasoned in both action and relational ethical perspectives. Surgeons focused on their relationships with patients and colleagues and their moral self in descriptions of the ethical challenges in their work. Dialogue and personal involvement were important in their relationships with patients. The surgeons emphasized the importance of open dialogue, professional recognition, and an inclusive and accepting environment between colleagues.


The surgeons are personally challenged by the existential realities of human life in their relationships with patients. They realized that ethical challenges are an inherent part of performing surgery and of life itself, and say that they have to learn to "live with" these challenges in a way that is confirmed both socially and by their inner moral self. This means accepting their personal and professional limitations, being uncertain, being fallible, and being humble. Living with the ethical challenges of surgery seems to contribute to the surgeons' confidence and vulnerability in their professional identity.