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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Healthcare Ethics During a Pandemic


As clinicians and support personnel struggle with their responsibilities to treat during the current COVID-19 pandemic, several ethical issues have emerged. Will healthcare workers and support staff fulfill their duty to treat in the face of high risks? Will institutional and government leaders at all levels do the right things to help alleviate healthcare workers risks and fears? Will physicians be willing to make hard, resource-allocation decisions if they cannot first husband or improvise alternatives? With our healthcare facilities and governments unprepared for this inevitable disaster, front-line doctors, advanced providers, nurses, EMS, and support personnel  struggle with acute shortages of equipment—both to treat patients and  protect themselves. With their personal and possibly their family’s lives and health at risk, they must weigh the option of continuing to work or retreat to safety. This decision, made daily, is based on professional and personal values, how they perceive existing risks—including available protective measures, and their perception of the level and transparency of information they receive. Often, while clinicians get this information, support personnel do not, leading to absenteeism and deteriorating healthcare services. Leadership can use good risk communication (complete, widely transmitted, and transparent) to align healthcare workers’ risk perceptions with reality. They also can address the common problems healthcare workers must overcome to continue working (ie, risk mitigation techniques). Physicians, if they cannot sufficiently husband or improvise lifesaving resources, will have to face difficult triage decisions. Ideally, they will use a predetermined plan, probably based on the principles of Utilitarianism (maximizing the greatest good) and derived from professional and community input. Unfortunately, none of these plans is optimal.

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