Using symbiotic empirical ethics to explore the significance of relationships to clinical ethics: findings from the Reset Ethics research project

Caroline A. B. Redhead, Lucy Frith, Anna Chiumento, Sara Fovargue, Heather Draper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


At the beginning of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, many non-Covid healthcare services were suspended. In April 2020, the Department of Health in England mandated that non-Covid services should resume, alongside the continuing pandemic response. This ‘resetting’ of healthcare services created a unique context in which it became critical to consider how ethical considerations did (and should) underpin decisions about integrating infection control measures into routine healthcare practices. We draw on data collected as part of the ‘NHS Reset Ethics’ project, which explored the everyday ethical challenges of resetting England’s NHS maternity and paediatrics services during the pandemic.

Healthcare professionals and members of the public participated in interviews and focus group discussions. The qualitative methods are reported in detail elsewhere. The focus of this article is our use of Frith’s symbiotic empirical ethics methodology to work from our empirical findings towards the normative suggestion that clinical ethics should explicitly attend to the importance of relationships in clinical practice. This methodology uses a five-step approach to refine and develop ethical theory based on a naturalist account of ethics that sees practice and theory as symbiotically related.

The Reset project data showed that changed working practices caused ethical challenges for healthcare professionals, and that infection prevention and control measures represented harmful barriers to the experience of receiving and offering
 care. For healthcare professionals, offering care as part of a relational interaction was an ethically important dimension of healthcare delivery.

Our findings suggest that foregrounding the importance of relationships across a hospital community will better promote the ethically important multi-directional expression of caring between healthcare professionals, patients, and their families. We offer two suggestions for making progress towards such a relational approach. First, that there is a change of emphasis in clinical ethics practice to explicitly acknowledge the importance of the relationships (including with their healthcare team) within which the patient is held. Second, that organisational decision-making should take into account the moral significance afforded to caring relationships by healthcare professionals, and the role such relationships can play in the negotiation of ethical challenges.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 May 2024


  • Covid-19
  • bioethics
  • empirical ethics
  • maternity
  • paediatrics
  • qualitative research


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