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Ethicists agree on who gets treated first when hospitals are overwhelmed by coronavirus 

A medical worker wearing a protective mask and suit treats patients suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in an intensive care unit at the Oglio Po hospital in Cremona, Italy
Reuters/ Flavio Lo Scalzo
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

Pandemics bring ethical dilemmas into sharp, terrible focus. Around the world, hospitals have been unable to cope with the millions who need treatment for coronavirus. China created makeshift hospitals and denied treatment to those who needed non-coronavirus care; Italians wait an hour on the phone to get through to emergency services. Few countries will fare better: The United States has fewer than 100,000 ICU beds, and is expected to need a minimum of 200,000 to cope with coronavirus; the UK has just 8,200 ventilators and is getting an extra 3,800.

As health care systems are overwhelmed with more patients than they can feasibly treat, medical personnel are forced to decide who should get the available ventilators and ICU beds. Quartz spoke with eight ethicists, all of whom agreed that in such dire situations, those who have the best chance of surviving get priority. Despite the unanimity, all agreed that this decision is far from easy and should not be taken lightly.

Different moral theories, same answer

The decision to prioritize those with good survival odds is reinforced by several moral theories. Utilitarianism, for example, argues that morality is determined by the consequences of actions, and so we should strive to create the maximum good for the maximum number of people. “If we give scarce treatments to those who don’t stand to benefit (and have a high chance of dying anyway), then not only will they die, but those with higher likelihood of survival (but require ventilator support) will also die,” says Lydia Dugdale, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at Columbia University. “It’s not fair to distribute scarce resources in a way that minimizes lives saved.”

A contractarian theory, which bases ethics on the social contract we would agree to if we didn’t know our status in society, arrives at the same conclusion. Joshua Parker, a trainee general practitioner (primary care doctor) who co-wrote an article on the ethics of coronavirus care for the Journal of Medical Ethics, points to philosopher John Rawls’ concept of a “veil of ignorance” as a way to determine the just action: “Behind the veil of ignorance, I am stripped of any knowledge of my position. I don’t know if I’ll be old, young, rich, poor, well, unwell, male or female; and I don’t know if I will catch COVID-19 or if I do, what resources I will need,” he writes in an email to Quartz. This thought experiment makes it easier to judge what’s fair for society as a whole. Alex John London, director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees: “Such agents might agree that in a pandemic, when not everyone can be saved, health care systems should use their resources to save as many lives as possible—because that is the strategy that allows each person a fair chance of being able to pursue their life plan.”

Even typically diverging ethical theories are likely to point to this conclusion. Utilitarianism, which focuses on the consequences of an action, is typically opposed to deontology, which says morality is determined by the act itself. “The deontologist might well start with a justice argument: each person is individually valuable and should have an equal chance of health care,” says Anders Sandberg, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute at the Oxford University. But if this is simply impossible, then the theory doesn’t hold. “As Kant said, “ought implies can,” and if one cannot do an action it cannot be obligatory.” A deontologist approach to treat everyone equally falls short when there simply isn’t enough medical equipment to treat everyone; if some will have access and some won’t, then we have to face the question of who gets preferential treatment. And so “even the most die-hard deontologist will usually agree” that it’s wrong to treat people who are unlikely to benefit while others are in need, agrees Brian D. Earp, associate director of the Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy at Yale University and The Hastings Center.

Doctors have reckoned with the need to allocate resources in the face of overwhelming demand long before coronavirus. Dugdale points out that the New York department of health’s ventilator allocation guidelines, published in November 2015 to address the issue amid a flu epidemic, states that first-come first-serve, lottery, physician clinical judgment, and prioritizing certain patients such as health care workers were explored but found to be either too subjective or failed to save the most lives. Age was rejected as a criterion as it discriminates against the elderly, and there are plenty of cases in which an older person has better odds of survival than someone younger.

So the decision was to “utilize clinical factors only to evaluate a patient’s likelihood of survival and to determine the patient’s access to ventilator therapy.” In tie-breaking circumstances, though, they did approve treating children 17 and younger over an adult where both have an equal odds of surviving. Dugdale adds that there’s talk of applying these guidelines to address coronavirus treatment in New York.

No good answer

The dire consequences of any decision made under such extreme circumstances means that, despite agreement, the best course of action is hardly favorable. “I would say that leaving some to die without treatment is NOT ethical, but it may be necessary as there are no good options,” David Chan, philosophy professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, writes. “Saying that it is ethical ignores the tragic element, and it is better that physicians feel bad about making the best of a bad situation rather than being convinced that they have done the right thing.”

Rather, it’s simply the least bad option. Alternatives, such as a lottery system or prioritizing the sickest, are likely to lead to more deaths. “There is a good chance that we invest resources into patients who don’t survive, and we have thus doomed not just the patient we tried to save, but also the patient who was passed over for care, because the resources have been used up,” says Vanessa Bentley, philosophy professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Lives that could have been saved were lost.”

Although there’s broad agreement on the best approach, the nuances of applying this decision will always be difficult. Not only must doctors accurately assess and prioritize those with the best chance of survival, but there could also be times when the hospital doesn’t have enough equipment to help even those with equal odds. Italy has prioritized treatment for those with “the best chance of success” but adds as a second criterion those “who have more potential years of life.” This secondary factor is not so easily agreed upon but, in the face of coronavirus, it’s an ethical question doctors will have to face.

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