Holly Tabor & Alyssa Burgard
Originally published 18 March 20
Times of crisis generate extreme moral dilemmas: situations we can’t begin to imagine, unthinkable choices emerging between options that all seem bad, each with harms and negative outcomes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these moral dilemmas are experienced across the healthcare landscape — from bedside encounters to executive suites of hospitals and health systems. Who gets put on a ventilator? Who transitions to comfort care? What does end of life care look like when high flow oxygen can’t be used because of viral spread? Who gets a hospital bed? How do we choose which sick person, with or without COVID-19, gets treated? Which patients should be enrolled in research? How do we support patients when their families cannot visit them? We will turn away people who, in any other circumstance in a U.S. medical facility, we would have been obliged to treat. We will second guess these decisions, and perhaps be haunted by them forever. We only know one thing for sure: people will suffer and die regardless of which decisions we make.
How should we confront these intense challenges? Many institutions are doing what they can to provide guidance. But “guidelines” by design are intended to provide broad parameters to aid in decision making, and therefore rarely address the exact situations clinicians face. Certainly no guidelines can reduce the pain of having to actually carry out recommendations that affect an individual patient. For other decisions, front line providers will have no guidance at all, or will have ill-informed, or even potentially harmful guidance. In perhaps the worst case scenario, they may even be encouraged to keep quiet about their concerns or observations rather than raise them to others’ attention.
As bioethicists, we know that moral dilemmas require personal moral courage, that is, the ability to take action for moral reasons, despite the risk of adverse consequences. We have already seen several stark examples of moral courage from doctors, nurses, and researchers in this outbreak. In late December in Wuhan, China, a 34 year-old ophthalmologist, Dr. Li Wenliang, raised the alarm in a chat group of doctors about a new virus he was seeing. He was subsequently punished by the Chinese government. He continued to share his story via social media, even from his hospital bed, and was repeatedly censored. Dr. Wenliang died of the virus on February 7.
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