Care-home Nurses' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: Managing ethical conundrums at personal cost: A qualitative study

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Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic had an unprecedented effect on those living and working in care-homes for older people, as residents were particularly vulnerable to contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus, associated with high morbidity and mortality. Often undervalued, care-home nurses (RNs) are leaders, managing complex care while working in isolation from their professional peers. The pandemic made this more apparent, when care and treatments for COVID-19 were initially unknown, isolation increased due to withdrawal of many professional health services, accompanied by staff shortages.

Objective: To explore RNs' experiences of working in older people's care-homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design: Qualitative interview study.

Setting: Care-homes for older people in England and Scotland, UK.

Methods: Recruitment via direct contact with care-homes, social media, and links provided by national partners, then purposive sampling for age, gender, type of care-home, and location. Data collected through one-to-one online interviews using topic guide developed collaboratively with care-home nurses, focusing on how COVID-19 impacted on nurses' resilience and mental wellbeing. Data analyzed thematically using Tronto's ethics of care framework to guide development of interpretative themes.

Results: Eighteen nurses (16 female; 16 adult, and two mental health nurses) were interviewed March–June 2021; majority aged 46–55 years; mean time registered with Nursing and Midwifery Council: 19 years; 17 had nursed residents with COVID-19. RNs' experiences resonated with Tronto's five tenets of ethical care: attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness, and solidarity. All nurses described being attentive to needs of others, but were less attentive to their own needs, which came at personal cost. RNs were aware of their professional and leadership responsibilities, being as responsive as they could be to resident needs, processing and sharing rapidly changing guidance and implementing appropriate infection control measures, but felt that relatives and regulatory bodies were not always appreciative. RNs developed enhanced clinical skills, increasing their professional standing, but reported having to compromise care, leading to moral distress. Broadly, participants reported a sense of solidarity across care-home staff and working together to cope with the crisis.

Conclusion: Care-home nurses felt unprepared for managing the COVID-19 pandemic, many experienced moral distress. Supporting care-home nurses to recover from the pandemic is essential to maintain a healthy, stable workforce and needs to be specific to care-home RNs, recognizing their unique pandemic experiences. Support for RNs will likely benefit other care-home workers either directly through wider roll-out, or indirectly through improved wellbeing of nurse leaders.

Clinical relevance: The COVID-19 pandemic, an international public health emergency, created many challenges for Registered Nurses (RNs) working in long-term care facilities for older people, as residents were particularly vulnerable to the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Care-home RNs faced challenges distinct from their hospital-based nursing peers and non-nursing social care colleagues due to their isolation, leadership roles, professional legal obligations, and ethical responsibilities, leading to psychological distress on the one hand, but also a newly found confidence in their existing and newly developed skills, and increased recognition by the wider health community of their specialisms.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)226-238
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Nursing Scholarship
Issue number1
Early online date4 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023

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