Researchers analyze ethics of allocating medical resources in COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many healthcare providers scrambling for resources to treat cases over the last several months. And public health officials fear a resurgence in cases. Doctors and healthcare professionals may be forced into difficult decisions: Whom do you save? 

Rows of hospital-grade ventilator machines

In a recent paper published in The BMJ, authors Andrew Peterson, Penn Memory Center Clark Scholar Emily Largen, and PMC Co-Director Jason Karlawish analyzed the ethics of allocating scarce medical resources in the COVID-19 pandemic while addressing potential harms to at-risk populations.

“The potential for [allocation decisions] to disproportionately affect vulnerable populations—including older adults, people from minority communities, or people with disabilities—is a particular concern,” the authors write.

Ventilators have been the topic of fraught discussions. How many are needed? Where can hospitals acquire them? And who should receive one if there are not enough for every patient, specifically in the hardest hit nations? While ventilator shortfalls have been temporarily avoided, a potential spike in cases would put even more patients in a dangerous position. 

Decisions on treatment are focused on saving the most lives and, in principle, try to avoid assumptions about quality of life. In practice, the authors argue, biases against at-risk populations may disadvantage them from receiving scarce resources.

“When we make rationing decisions, it’s the case that even the people who don’t get the resource have a legitimate claim to it. Sometimes though, people let inappropriate factors weigh into their calculations, and that can disadvantage some groups,” Largent says.

Read more at Penn Memory Center.