The Four Topics Approach to Ethical Decision Making Paper

The Four Topics Approach to Ethical Decision Making Paper

Jonsen and colleagues’ (2010) Four Topics Method for ethical analysis is a practical approach for nurses and other healthcare professionals. The nurse or team begins with relevant facts about a particular case and moves toward a resolution through a structured analysis. In healthcare settings, ethics committees often resolve ethical problems and answer ethical questions by using a case-based, or bottom-up, inductive, casuistry approach. The Four Topics Method, sometimes called the Four Box Approach ( Table 2-1 ) is found in the book Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine (Jonsen et al., 2010).


This case-based approach allows healthcare professionals to construct the facts of a case in a structured format that facilitates critical thinking about ethical problems. Cases are analyzed according to four topics: “medical indications, patient preferences, quality of life, and contextual features” (Jonsen et al., 2010, p. 8). Nurses and other healthcare professionals on the team gather information in an attempt to answer the questions in each of the four boxes. The Four Topics Method facilitates dialogue between the patient–family/surrogate dyad and members of the healthcare ethics team or committee. By following the outline of the questions, healthcare providers are able to inspect and evaluate the full scope of the patient’s situation and the central ethical conflict. After the ethics team has gathered the facts of a case, an analysis is conducted. Each case is unique and should be considered as such, but the subject matter of particular situations often involves common threads with other ethically and legally accepted precedents, such as landmark cases that involved withdrawing or withholding treatment. Though each case analysis begins with facts, the four fundamental principles—autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice—along with the Four Topics Method are considered together as the process, and resolution take place (Jonsen et al., 2010). The Four Topics Approach to Ethical Decision Making Paper

TABLE 2-1 Four Topics Method for Analysis of Clinical Ethics Cases

Medical Indications: The Principles of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence

1. What is the patient’s medical problem? Is the problem acute? Chronic? Critical? Reversible? Emergent? Terminal?

2. What are the goals of treatment?

3. In what circumstances are medical treatments not indicated?

4. What are the probabilities of success of various treatment options?

5. In sum, how can this patient be benefited by medical and nursing care, and how can harm be avoided?

Patient Preferences: The Principle of Respect for Autonomy

1. Has the patient been informed of benefits and risks, understood this information, and given consent?

2. Is the patient mentally capable and legally competent, and is there evidence of incapacity?

3. If mentally capable, what preferences about treatment is the patient stating?

4. If incapacitated, has the patient expressed prior preferences?

5. Who is the appropriate surrogate to make decisions for the incapacitated patient?

6. Is the patient unwilling or unable to cooperate with medical treatment? If so, why?

Quality of Life: The Principles of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence and Respect for Autonomy

1. What are the prospects, with or without treatment, for a return to normal life, and what physical, mental, and social deficits might the patient experience even if treatment succeeds?

2. On what grounds can anyone judge that some quality of life would be undesirable for a patient who cannot make or express such a judgment?

3. Are there biases that might prejudice the provider’s evaluation of the patient’s quality of life?

4. What ethical issues arise concerning improving or enhancing a patient’s quality of life?

5. Do quality-of-life assessments raise any questions regarding changes in treatment plans, such as forgoing life-sustaining treatment?

6. What are plans and rationale to forgo life-sustaining treatment?

7. What is the legal and ethical status of suicide?

Contextual Features: The Principles of Justice and Fairness

1. Are there professional, interprofessional, or business interests that might create conflicts of interest in the clinical treatment of patients? The Four Topics Approach to Ethical Decision Making Paper

2. Are there parties other than clinicians and patients, such as family members, who have an interest in clinical decisions?

3. What are the limits imposed on patient confidentiality by the legitimate interests of third parties?

4. Are there financial factors that create conflicts of interest in clinical decisions?

5. Are there problems of allocation of scarce health resources that might affect clinical decisions?

6. Are there religious issues that might influence clinical decisions?

7. What are the legal issues that might affect clinical decisions?

8. Are there considerations of clinical research and education that might affect clinical decisions?

9. Are there issues of public health and safety that affect clinical decisions?

10. Are there conflicts of interest within institutions and organizations (e.g., hospitals) that may affect clinical decisions and patient welfare?

The Four Topics Approach to Ethical Decision Making Paper