Triage, consent and trusting black boxes

Journal of Medical Ethics 47 (5):289-290 (2021)
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Abstract

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to public attention a variety of questions long debated in medical ethics, but now given both added urgency and wider publicity. Among these is triage, with its origins in deciding which individual lives are to be saved on a battlefield, but now also concerned with the allocation of scarce resources more generally. On the historical battlefield, decisions about whom to treat first – neither those who would survive without treatment, nor those who would not survive even with treatment, but those who needed treatment to survive – was facilitated by military discipline and the limited effectiveness of treatments available. In the allocation of scarce resources today, by contrast, such decisions are subject to intense public and political scrutiny, and the range of effective treatments available has immeasurably diminished the proportion of ‘those who would not survive even with treatment’. If triage decisions are to be made, they now need to be justified in the arena of public opinion by moral arguments which are also politically persuasive. A number of different aspects of what is required for this endeavour are examined in the first five contributions to this issue of the Journal. In ‘Should age matter in COVID-19 triage? A deliberative study ’1, Kuylen and colleagues report on a deliberative study of public views in the UK, in which participants ‘generally accepted the need for triage but strongly rejected ’fair innings’ and ’life projects’ principles as justifications for age-based allocation,…preferring to maximise the number of lives rather than life years saved’; and concerned that in any resolution ‘utilitarian considerations of efficiency should be tempered with a concern for equality and vulnerability’. A similar concern to temper utilitarian considerations, in this case with an Aristotelian view of the common good as ‘the good life for …

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