Ethics briefing

Journal of Medical Ethics 46 (6):397-398 (2020)
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Healthcare professionals are currently working under extreme pressure as they respond to the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19. At the time of writing, there is currently no effective vaccine or anti-viral treatment. The pandemic is fast-moving, relatively unpredictable and of uncertain duration. In many countries, it is placing an enormous stress on healthcare resources and providing care to existing standards is proving difficult. Unfortunately, in some countries, health services have been overwhelmed. The impact of the pandemic on resource-poor countries is of particular concern. This extraordinary situation is raising, or has the potential to raise, many ethical challenges for doctors delivering care to patients. It is possible, for example, that there may be points in this pandemic where decisions need to be made about who should have access to finite specialised intensive care beds, drugs and equipment. This has happened in some countries and, despite efforts by the UK Government to reduce demand and increase supply, it is still possible that this could happen in the UK. Some hospital trusts in the UK are already reporting concerningly low supplies of oxygen and vital medicines such as propofol and alfentanil.1 In these circumstances, where not everyone can be treated, difficult ethical decisions will have to made. For example, can some patients be prioritised over others? How should a doctor decide on which patients to treat? Can treatment be withdrawn from patients who are currently being treated, but are not responding, in order to offer treatment to those who may have a better chance of benefiting? The UK is also reporting concerningly low supplies of vital personal protective equipment for frontline workers, raising the question - what are a doctor’s obligations to treat patients, in circumstances that present a high …



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Olivia J. Lines
Birkbeck College

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