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A qualitative study of the use of the four quadrant approach to assist ethical decision-making during deployment


Aim The aim of the study was to explore how useful clinicians deployed to the Field Hospital in Afghanistan found using the four quadrant approach (4QA) as a tool to aid ethical decision-making. In addition, the study aimed to determine whether the 4QA needed to be amended to make it more effective in assisting the ethical decision-making process for military health professionals on deployment.

Method A qualitative pilot study in two phases was undertaken between September 2012 and January 2013. In Phase I, senior deployed clinicians completed a pro forma of the 4QA on cases that potentially raised ethical issues. Thirteen pro formas were submitted on four cases; the Deployed Medical Director submitted a log of 14 cases that had involved using the 4QA. Phase II consisted of interviews with five senior clinicians who had recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan to discuss their experiences and perceptions of using the 4QA.

Results Phase I identified a variation in the level of detail recorded and where that information was placed on the quadrant. Four themes were generated from Phase II. These included the characteristics of ethical decisions; the processes used to make ethical decisions; use, usefulness and limitations of the 4QA; and views about training in ethics. The findings suggested that amendments to the pro forma may improve its utility.

Conclusions The 4QA is a useful tool within an operational setting but amending its diagrammatic presentation could improve its effectiveness. Pre-deployment training should include practising using the quadrant as described in Clinical Guidelines for Operations. This is particularly important as the participants relied heavily on experience to help them make ethical decisions, and this experience may not be available in future operations outside Afghanistan.

  • Accident & Emergency Medicine
  • Qualitative Research
  • Ethics (see Medical Ethics)
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