Defining Ethical Challenge(s) in Healthcare Research: A Rapid Review

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Background: Despite its ubiquity in academic research, the phrase ‘ethical challenge(s)’ appears to lack an agreed definition. A lack of a definition risks introducing confusion or avoidable bias. Conceptual clarity is a key component of research, both theoretical and empirical. Using a rapid review methodology, we sought to review definitions of ‘ethical challenge(s)’ and closely related terms as used in current healthcare research literature.

Methods: Rapid review to identify peer-reviewed reports examining ‘ethical challenge(s)’ in any context, extracting data on definitions of ‘ethical challenge(s)’ in use, and synonymous use of closely related terms in the general manuscript text. Data were analysed using content analysis. Four databases (MEDLINE, Philosopher’s Index, EMBASE, CINAHL) were searched from April 2016 to April 2021.

Results: 393 records were screened, with 72 studies eligible and included: 53 empirical studies, 17 structured reviews and 2 review protocols. 12/72 (17%) contained an explicit definition of ‘ethical challenge(s), two of which were shared, resulting in 11 unique definitions. Within these 11 definitions, four approaches were identified: definition through concepts; reference to moral conflict, moral uncertainty or difficult choices; definition by participants; and challenges linked to emotional or moral distress. Each definition contained one or more of these approaches, but none contained all four. 68/72 (94%) included studies used terms closely related to synonymously refer to ‘ethical challenge(s)’ within their manuscript text, with 32 different terms identified and between one and eight different terms mentioned per study.

Conclusions: Only 12/72 studies contained an explicit definition of ‘ethical challenge(s)’, with significant variety in scope and complexity. This variation risks confusion and biasing data analysis and results, reducing confidence in research findings. Further work on establishing acceptable definitional content is needed to inform future bioethics research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 3 Sep 2021


  • Ethical Challenges
  • Rapid Review
  • Empirical bioethics
  • Moral Dilemmas


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