The Impossible Ethics of Pandemic Triage

Is there a formula for deciding which patients doctors try to save?
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If help does not arrive quickly, several hospitals in New York will soon run out of ventilators. Doctors at these hospitals will then face anguishing choices — if the word “choice” is even applicable when every available option is an awful one.

The Coronavirus Pandemic
From the Special Series:

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Imagine that Mr. Jones was intubated yesterday in an NYC hospital. He is not imminently dying, though his chances of surviving Covid-19 are uncertain. Mrs. Smith, another Covid-19 case, now requires intubation in the same hospital’s emergency room. She is twenty years younger than Jones, and without his diabetes and hypertension, so her prognosis for recovery is better. But yesterday Jones took the last ventilator in the ICU. If we leave Mr. Jones on the vent, Mrs. Smith will die. If we take Jones off the vent to give it to Smith, then he will die.

If we choose the younger, healthier Mrs. Smith over the older, sicker Mr. Jones, this might appear to be age discrimination. On the other hand, the coronavirus itself engages in age discrimination, killing those over 70 at a much higher rate — so age itself appears to be a medically relevant prognostic factor in many cases.

Most physicians are not trained as wartime medics. We have never before faced these battlefield triage decisions. And with the coronavirus pandemic, there are additional ethical complications. That NYC hospital is also running out of N95 masks and proper gowns to protect staff from infection. Health care workers certainly have a duty to care for the sick. Just as firefighters run into burning buildings while others run away, so also we treat contagious patients while others are socially distancing.

But just as firefighters never signed up to run into burning buildings in their boxer shorts, so also doctors and nurses did not sign up to treat infectious diseases without basic personal protective equipment — gowns, gloves, and masks that cost pennies apiece yet somehow are in short supply. When this PPE is gone, and doctors lack even the most basic barriers against infection, should the 70-year-old physician have to stay in the game? What about the 28-year-old pregnant medical resident who has an elderly immunocompromised grandfather living at home?

Suppose during this crisis we stretch the duty to treat contagious patients to heroic proportions. This is part of the physician’s job, so it is all hands on deck. After a few weeks of this strategy, and before more N95 masks arrive, half of the emergency and ICU physicians in this NYC hospital are home sick with the cursed virus, and one of the hospital’s docs is sick enough to need — guess what? — a ventilator. So this doctor returns to her hospital as a patient.

Should we then pull Mrs. Jones off the ventilator and offer it to the infected physician, who after all acquired Covid-19 while on the front lines heroically risking her own health to care for patients? If we are not convinced by the argument from reciprocity (that she deserves some reward for these efforts), what about the “multiplier effect”? If our central ethical principle under crisis conditions is to save as many lives as possible, it seems plausible that saving this ICU physician — if she recovers and returns to the fray — could help save the lives of more patients. Doctors are in short supply and cannot be easily replaced.

Okay, fine — perhaps we can prioritize doctors, all other things being equal in terms of prognosis. But many other workers are also critical to the pandemic response. Perhaps we can “replace” food service workers and janitors — as distasteful as it is to put it in those terms and think of our fellow human beings in that way — but what about the lead scientist on a project to develop a coronavirus vaccine? Or the police chief of New York? Or any police officer or firefighter, for that matter? What about a priority nudge for pregnant patients on the basis of this same multiplier effect? How should we draw the line around this category of “critical workers” or others who can get a bump up the triage list?

Draw the line too broadly, encompassing anyone still working during the crisis, and such priority quickly becomes meaningless. Draw it too narrowly and you exclude others who are also essential. In any case, if we consider some to be indispensable in this hour, does this not imply that others — the artists and poets, the homeless and unemployed — are dispensable? How will such practices shape our attitudes and impact social solidarity once the virus is gone and the dust has settled?

Suppose we attempt to resolve these puzzles by sticking only to objective clinical criteria: no special priority for anyone, no triage categories that are not directly related to prognosis. We do our best to predict which patients will have the best short-term survival outcomes, give them first priority on scarce resources like ventilators, and save as many people as possible. This seems sensible enough, until we realize that those Covid-19 patients with the best prognosis are typically the ones without medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac disease. But these people are often healthier because they eat healthy food (which is more expensive than McDonald’s), work out at fancy gyms (also expensive), and have access to good medical care (very expensive).

So a triage system that appears at first glance to be fair and medically objective turns out to have the potential for exacerbating social inequalities. The populations that were most vulnerable before a disaster are likely to be among the most vulnerable during a disaster. On the other hand, our mandate is to save as many lives as possible, not to right all wrongs. If devising a medically fair pandemic triage system is frightfully hard, devising a socially fair system seems impossible.

Triage scenarios are not hypothetical fantasies: they are happening in Italy and they are on the verge of happening here. Even as we hope and pray for the best, we have to plan for the worst — and prepare for it quickly.

For the past several weeks, these and a thousand other bewildering questions have been keeping my colleagues and me awake at night. After working on these issues round the clock with colleagues at my hospital who specialize in ethics, critical care, anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and nursing, I recently joined a task force to devise a pandemic triage protocol for all hospitals in the University of California system. These are some of the most remarkable people I know, and most have skin in the game as physicians on the front lines.

UC hospitals are well prepared for a large coronavirus surge, but many of California’s smaller private and community hospitals may not be so fortunate. These times call for the sharing of resources between hospitals, for transfers of care, for institutional solidarity. Our hospitals’ resources belong not to us, but to the citizens of California, and even to those beyond our state borders.

We are not starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel in our deliberations. Many thoughtful ethicists and dedicated clinicians have examined these questions in the bioethics research literature. And several states have published guidelines on these thorny questions, often with input from citizens. Yet most of this background work was done when these questions were hypothetical, while the guidelines we are producing now may soon be deployed on the ground.

In the few moments when we slow down, we occasionally think about the opportunistic lawyers and prosecutors who will later go after doctors no matter what choices we make. This is not to mention the Monday morning quarterbacks who will second-guess these choices with the benefit of hindsight, limitless time, and much more retrospective data. Well, fine — let armies of graduate students earn their Ph.D.’s in the coming years by telling us what we could have done better.

Honestly, most of the time we just worry about our patients. We picture the droves of sick people, barely able to breathe, who will arrive any day now at our hospital doors in ever expanding numbers. We wonder how we will explain our decision to an anguished daughter when we have to look her in the eye and say, “We are sorry, your father will not be placed on a ventilator but will be transitioned to comfort care only.” How will we explain this when a month ago he would have received treatment without question, and might have recovered?

None of this makes sense and none of us thought we would ever be in this position. Yet here we are.

We have deliberated about duty, justice, equality, fairness, transparency. These principles can never be abandoned even in a crisis. Yet something lingers always in the background of our efforts. There is an inescapably tragic undercurrent to all of this, however upright our intentions. This one unsettling fact always remains to haunt us: If hospitals exceed their surge capacity, patients who otherwise would have lived will die. Lives will be lost simply because we lacked the resources to offer everyone the basics of modern medicine.

T. S. Eliot saw the limits of our ability to rectify all wrongs and balance the scales of justice when he wrote, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” My colleagues and I, like so many others in these strange times, are trying our best. But controlling and managing this pandemic is beyond our abilities, indeed, beyond anyone’s abilities. In the absence of a God’s-eye view, in the absence of unlimited resources, in the absence of a crystal ball that can perfectly prognosticate outcomes, physicians are left to humbly do whatever we can — even as we know that this will not be enough. For us there is only the trying. The rest is marked by tragedy.

Aaron Kheriaty, “The Impossible Ethics of Pandemic Triage,”, April 3, 2020.
Triage tent in Lisbon, Portugal on April 2, 2020 / Patricia de Melo Moreira / Getty

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