Some bioethicists support age-related rationing of ventilators during the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to save the most lives. But that goal might be better realized without strict age cutoffs.
BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY
There’s a long history of conflict between the institution of medicine, bioethics, and the disability community. With Covid-19 disproportionately affecting people with disabilities, we must do everything we can to avoid a triage decision-making process that pushes disabled people to the side. One important action is to appoint people with disabilities, and especially those of color, to hospital triage committees. To our knowledge, no hospital or state crisis standards of care protocol mandates this kind of representation.
Of all the “isms,” ageism is arguably the hardest to address because old age neither a valued stage of life nor an identity that many claim. The coronavirus pandemic may have made that effort even harder.
Covid-19 imposes burdens in different—but very serious—ways on different individuals and groups. We see it in policies that address what to do in the face of shortages of scarce resources. We begin by challenging a common claim—that people with disabilities as a group will be harmed by triage policies that consider patients’ prospect of medical benefit.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been characterized by many unknowns, chief among them in the world of pediatric ethics is the question of separating mothers who are infected or suspected of being infected from their newborns after delivery to reduce the risk of mother-to-child transmission. Guidance on this issue is conflicting.
The Covid-19 pandemic has imposed tremendous risk on doctors, nurses, and other health care workers not seen in a century. It is time to reconsider prioritization of health care workers’ access to scare critical resources.
Historically, for multiple reasons, health care workers have not been prioritized for access to medical care during a pandemic. However, given the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, it is justifiable to prioritize health care workers when all else is equal between two patients.
As Covid-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, doctors, nurses, and oth-er clinicians are facing unmistakable tragedies. But something less perceptible is afoot. Empathy in medicine is under siege.
Despite the disruptive changes to my undergraduate medical ethics class this semester, my students have learned a lot about the paradox that the coronavirus presents: it is an unprecedented event, beyond the experience of nearly everyone alive today, and yet it puts on grim display the well-known problems of inequality that chronically plague the United States. Since week six of the semester, I have readjusted each unit on the syllabus to address some of the ethical issues that Covid-19 has brought to the fore, familiar challenges that have been stressed and distorted in astonishing ways by the pandemic.
Around the world, governments are looking for safe ways to lift unprecedented restrictions on public activities to curb the spread of Covid-19. So-called immunity passports could be key to the effort to selectively ease restrictions for people presumed to be immune to the virus. But there are scientific and ethical questions to be worked out before they can be deployed.
Dilemmas that clinicians face in the coronavirus pandemic–who gets the ventilator, the 80-year-old grandmother or the 20-year-old student?–are the bread and butter of mainstream bioethics. In medical school, my classmates and I memorized the four principles (beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, and autonomy), which we were told would help us make hard clinical decisions in ethically ambiguous terrain. But Covid-19 shows that medical ethics means much more than what generally falls under bioethics. Medical ethics is deeply political, and to act ethically in medicine means engaging the larger context in which it operates.
There is little doubt about the urgent need for Covid-19 treatment. But premature publication of definitive recommendations based on inappropriate conclusions grounded in scant, hastily-acquired data serve only at best to confuse and at worst mislead at a time when tensions are high and need for help is great.
Double-blind randomized clinical trials are the gold standard for answering the scientific question of whether a drug produces any effect, positive or negative, in Covid-19 patients. But is rational for a patient to choose to try a drug such as chloroquine for Covid-19 outside of a trial? Some patients may correctly hold that they have little to lose.
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