Ethical Considerations When Treating COVID-19 Patients

Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care practitioners continue to battle COVID-19 on the front lines, despite widely reported shortages of protective equipment, hospital beds and other devices such as ventilators. With overwhelmed hospitals, traditional ethical models of patient care have been upended.

Dr. Gerard Magill, Vernon F. Gallagher Chair & Professor in Healthcare Ethics at Duquesne, has extensive experience on institutional review boards, hospital ethics committees and health care ethics consultation services. He is available to discuss the ethical issues surrounding the treatment of COVID-19 patients.   Some of the ethical issues to consider:  

Choosing who gets treated/receives a ventilator  

"Typically, healthcare providers follow the 'clinical ethics guide' for decision-making, which focuses on how the doctor can address the individual needs of the patient," says Magill. "Now we are seeing a switch to 'population health ethics,' under which decisions are made based on the needs of the population."

Under the population health ethics model, a triage team made up of senior doctors, nurses and administrators makes decisions regarding patient care based on the likelihood of the patient surviving.  

A public health emergency must be called for governors to make the switch to the triage method. Typically, it involves a scoring system where each patient is assigned a score based on the patient's case and chance of survival. If a hospital is unable to treat all its patients, the ones with the lowest scores (best chance of survival) are the most likely to receive treatment. 

High-risk health care providers' duties to their patients and families

"It's obviously an emotionally-charged situation where doctors and nurses are being told to come to work, knowing there are limited resources and knowing their colleagues are being infected and dying," says Magill. "It's similar to war, where your superior officers are telling you what to do and when to do it."  

Magill says that while the situation is scary, health care professionals have a duty to treat their patients.  

He anticipates a movement of professionals to follow the virus as it peaks in different areas of the country. Clinicians have also been called out of retirement and recent medical school graduates have been called upon to address the shortage of health care professionals in areas like New York City. 

Media Contact: Emily Stock, 412.277.9273

Duquesne University

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