Ethical Decision Making In A Crisis A Case Study Of Ethics In Public Health Emergencies

Topic Collection: Disaster Ethics

Healthcare providers have an obligation to deliver care and services consistent with professional ethics standards. In the event of a catastrophic natural or human-caused disaster, these obligations can become complicated under crisis standards of care when difficult decisions may need to be made about allocation of resources. In medical disaster planning, consistency, fairness, effectiveness, and transparency are best achieved by engagement with stakeholder communities so that planning is informed by the values, norms, and moral traditions of that community. The resources in this Topic Collection include lessons learned from recent disasters, educational and training materials, and plans, tools, and templates that can help healthcare professionals, planners, and communities identify, plan for, and address ethical challenges they may face before, during, and after a disaster. (Please note: ASPR TRACIE also developed a comprehensive Topic Collection on Crisis Standards of Care, which focuses on systems and processes including clinical aspects of crisis care.)

Each resource in this Topic Collection is placed into one or more of the following categories (click on the category name to be taken directly to that set of resources). Resources marked with an asterisk (*) appear in more than one category.



Must Reads

Duty to Care

Education and Training

General Guidance on Disaster Ethics

Lessons Learned: Ebola

Lessons Learned: Haiti

Mental and Behavioral Health

Pandemic Influenza

Pediatric Issues

Plans, Tools, and Templates

Public Engagement

Resource Allocation and Triage

Agencies and Organizations


Must Reads


Beaton, R., Reyes, G., and Call, J.A.(2007).Disaster Research Ethics: Gaps, Challenges, and Team Sustainability. (Requires free registration.) Northwest Center for Public Health Practice.

Speakers in this two-part webinar provide tips and explain ethical considerations associated with conducting disaster mental health research with children and families.

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Connerton, P.(2013).Ethical Guidelines for the Development of Emergency Plans.American Health Care Association.

This guidance can help disaster planners incorporate ethical considerations into their documents, exercises, and other preparedness activities.

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Gostin, L. and Powers, M.(2006).What Does Social Justice Require for the Public’s Health? Public Health Ethics and Policy Imperatives.Health Affairs. 25(4): 1053–1060.

The authors examine the concept of social justice and how it can be applied to public health emergencies.

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Hick, J., Hanfling, D., and Cantrill, S.(2011).Allocating Scarce Resources in Disasters: Emergency Department Principles.Annals of Emergency Medicine. 59:177-187.

The authors conducted a review on disaster literature in order to provide emergency physicians with a framework of principles on which medical interventions provided may be adjusted according to demand and the resources available. They emphasize that different incidents call for different responses (conventional, contingency, and crisis), making preparation and a solid understanding of the framework essential to making informed decisions during an event.

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Kraus, C., Levy, F., Kelen, G.(2007).Lifeboat Ethics: Considerations in the Discharge of Inpatients for the Creation of Hospital Surge Capacity. (First page only.) Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. 1(1): 51-56.

The authors discuss the ethics of triage with attention to the less common situation of triaging patients for discharge from the hospital to make room for incoming patients.

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Sharpe, V., Berkowitz, K., Cecire, R., et al.(2010).Meeting the Challenge of Pandemic Influenza: Ethical Guidance for Leaders and Health Care Professionals in the Veterans Health Administration.U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

This guidance document is divided into five sections on ethical preparedness and response in a healthcare system: 1) an overview of ethical challenges; 2) workforce capacity and responsibility; 3) resource allocation; 4) hospice and palliative care; and 5) limiting personal liberty to preserve public health. The document also includes a checklist for implementing the plan guidance.

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Upshur, R.E.G., Faith, K., Gibson, J.L.., et al.(2005).Stand on Guard for Thee: Ethical Considerations in Preparedness Planning for Pandemic Influenza.University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics Pandemic Influenza Working Group.

This guide focuses on pandemic influenza and related ethical issues such as providing care, quarantine, priority setting, and governance. The authors provide guidelines for developing an ethical pandemic plan and decision-making while in the midst of an outbreak.

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Duty to Care


American Nurses Association.(2010).Who Will Be There? Ethics, the Law, and a Nurse's Duty to Respond in a Disaster.

This factsheet highlights the concerns nurses may have related to ethical and legal issues during a public health emergency or other disaster. Links to other resources are also provided.

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Grimaldi, M.E.(2007).Ethical Decisions in Times of Disaster: Choices Healthcare Workers Must Make.Journal of Trauma Nursing. 14(3): 163-4.

The author explains the ambiguity surrounding the code of ethics for many healthcare professions during public health emergencies and provides a review of related literature and codes, but notes more work must be done in this area. 

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*Minnesota Department of Health.(2013).Patient Care Strategies for Scarce Resource Situations.Office of Emergency Preparedness, Minnesota Healthcare System Preparedness Program.

This card set can help facilitate an orderly approach to resource shortfalls at a healthcare facility. It is a decision support tool to be used by key personnel, along with incident management, who are familiar with ethical frameworks and processes that underlie these decisions.

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*Powell, T., Christ, K.C., and Birkhead, G.S.(2008).Allocation of Ventilators in a Public Health Disaster.Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. 2(01), 20-26.

This paper details one of the first efforts intended to identify a statewide approach to allocating mechanical ventilators in the setting of a large-scale respiratory emergency event. The authors highlight the ethical principles that govern such decision making, with an emphasis on the “duty to plan,” the “duty to care,” and the “duty to steward resources.”

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Education and Training


*Beaton, R., Reyes, G., and Call, J.A.(2007).Disaster Research Ethics: Gaps, Challenges, and Team Sustainability. (Requires free registration.) Northwest Center for Public Health Practice.

Speakers in this two-part webinar provide tips and explain ethical considerations associated with conducting disaster mental health research with children and families.

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Jewell, S.(2008).Ethics and Public Health in the Age of Terrorism. (Requires free registration.) University at Albany, State University of New York, School of Public Health and Health Professions, Center for Public Health Preparedness.

This course is comprised of ten modules which illustrate the role of public health in addressing the ethical issues that may arise after a terrorist attack.

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Kayman, H.(2008).Ethical Decision Making in Times of Public Health Catastrophe. (Requires free registration.) University of Washington, Northwest Center for Public Health Practice.

The speaker provides an overview of ethical decision-making during public health emergencies and teaches participants how to make decisions with local partners during a disaster. Links to the slides and the actual recording are provided.

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Olson, D.(2012).Applying Ethical Frameworks During Severe Pandemic Influenza.University of Minnesota, School of Public Health, U-SEEE Preparedness and Emergency Response Learning Center.

This 45-minute module can help participants prepare for ethical issues that may arise during a pandemic influenza. The speaker discusses ethics and community preparedness, medical countermeasure dispensing, resource allocation, and other related topics.

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General Guidance on Disaster Ethics


American Nurses Association.(2008).Adapting Standards of Care under Extreme Conditions: Guidance for Professionals during Disasters, Pandemics, and Other Extreme Emergencies.

This report illustrates the findings from an expert panel held to: 1) identify ethics-specific policy questions that need to be addressed, and 2) develop strategies that can help healthcare providers make important decisions during a disaster.

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Childress, J.F., Faden, R.R., Gaare, R.D., et al.(2002).Public Health Ethics: Mapping the Terrain. (First page only.) The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 30: 170–178.

The authors attempt to “map” public health ethics by defining the field and highlighting ethics-related features.

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Gostin, L. and Powers, M.(2006).What Does Social Justice Require for the Public’s Health? Public Health Ethics and Policy Imperatives.Health Affairs. 25(4): 1053–1060.

The authors examine the concept of social justice and how it can be applied to public health emergencies.

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*Hanfling, D., Altevogt, B.M., Viswanathan, K., and Gostin, L.O (eds.).(2012).Crisis Standards of Care: A Systems Framework for Catastrophic Disaster Response.Institute of Medicine, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

This report was designed to help authorities operationalize the concepts first developed in the 2009 Institute of Medicine Report titled, “Guidance for Establishing Crisis Standards of Care for Use in Disaster Situations: A Letter Report.” It provides practical templates and toolkits for the emergency response disciplines and emphasizes the importance of a systems framework. This report also includes a “public engagement” template specifically to guide communities in hosting meetings and encourages the inclusion of citizens in their policy process.

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Jennings, B., and Arras, J.(2008).Ethical Guidance for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response: Highlighting Ethics and Values in a Vital Public Health Service.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This report provides an ethical framework for healthcare providers to use when planning for or responding to a public health emergency or other disaster.

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Johns Hopkins Berman Institute for Bioethics.(n.d.).Public Health Ethics.

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Matzo, M., Powell, T., Surbeck, J., and Erickson-Hurt, C.(2012).Palliative Care in Disasters.

This presentation was given at the Integrated Medical, Public Health, and Response Training Summit. The speakers: shared an overview of palliative care; explained how it fits into Crisis Standards of Care research (and highlighted related ethical considerations during disasters); described a model of palliative care and how it was used in an exercise; and discussed firsthand experience in providing palliative care after disasters struck Haiti and Indonesia.

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National Library of Medicine; Disaster Information Management Research Center.(n.d.).Information Sources on Ethics in Disaster Medicine and Public Health.

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(n.d.).Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

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As the United States has focused on its vulnerability to violent terrorist acts, it has turned to protectionist initiatives in political and economic policies and defensive measures such as biodefense and emergency preparedness programs in health policy. Arguing that their efforts will afford needed protection from bioterrorist threats and also strengthen the health system, the nation's leaders have called upon health professionals to play a central role in securing the homeland [1-4]. On this new landscape, emergency planning and response revolve more than ever around complex emergencies, where human action plays a role in creating crisis [5-6].

Much has been said about first responders, physicians, and other health professionals' obligations to participate in emergency preparedness efforts, to face great danger, and to confront new and difficult moral questions in an actual crisis. Considerably more discussion is needed on the social and institutional policies that should exist to support health care professionals in these endeavors. Here I hope to shift the conversation toward what is owed to health professionals both as they prepare to face possible crisis and also in their longer-term project of protecting and promoting the nation's health. Social norms, economic structures, and institutional processes demand our attention because they can support (or undermine) health professionals' ability to defend public health, protect their own bodily integrity, and uphold key ethical ideals.

Giving Health Professionals Their Due in the Face of Disaster

Emergency preparedness now captures the energies and expertise not only of first responders and emergency physicians and nurses but virtually all clinicians and public health professionals—and increasingly defines the specific ends which organize their work. Many health professionals find themselves working to secure funding from the "war chest" set aside by the federal government for research on biological pathogens and medical countermeasures [7-9]. Others are redesigning public health statutes and forging new links with law enforcement [10-11]. Education in emergency preparedness—with emphasis on bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction—currently constitutes part of the preferred curriculum for medical students and other health professionals in training [12-18]. Public health agencies, academic health centers, and physician specialists have organized task forces and defined competencies for readiness and protocols for emergency response [19-31]. Some health professionals have found themselves serving as participants in (highly controversial) studies of the smallpox vaccine [32].

It appears, however, that "readiness" remains an elusive goal [33-36]. Evidence suggests that needed resources—including protective equipment, personnel, facilities, and information regarding past experiences with bioterrorism—are lacking [37-46]. This presents serious ethical concerns for public health and health professionals, especially those who would serve as first responders, given pervasive expectations that they come forward to serve in a crisis.

Indeed, along with calls from the nation's leaders, legal obligations and ethical codes compel health professionals to confront danger. Under the force of law, and specifically the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), emergency departments are required to stabilize patients in need of emergency care. Proposed revisions to public health statutes require some health professionals to give care in an emergency as a condition of licensure [47]. More generally, federal authorities and health care accreditation organizations mandate participation in the National Disaster Medical System [48].

Ethics codes generally give less explicit directives but can make strong moral claims on health professionals. The American Medical Association, for example, stops short of postulating a duty but nevertheless calls for physicians to "apply [their] knowledge and skills when needed though doing so may put [them] at risk" [49]. According to the American Nurses Association, nurses are obligated to provide care in certain circumstances (emergency not noted), yet they also have duties to themselves, namely to preserve their integrity and safety [50]. At the same time, the National Association of Emergency Medical Services Physicians notes that "prehospital care providers have no duty to place themselves at risk for the benefit of another" [51]. Although not an ethics code, the Association of American Medical College's report on training future physicians for crisis at once refers to "professional obligations to treat" and "rights to protect . . . personal safety" [12]. While many codes thus reveal tensions between obligations to others and to self, health professionals are left to determine which holds the most moral weight.

It appears, at least at present, that requirements and entreaties for health professionals to face the grave dangers presented by bioterrorism or weapons of mass destruction fail to meet the ethical principle of proportionality, which holds that policies and practices are ethically justifiable when the risks of harm are minimized and reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits. To be sure, the expertise of health professionals would bring great benefit to public health in a disaster. Yet, without adequate resources, health professionals' capacities to protect their own bodily integrity in a crisis is severely impaired. This in turn poses serious risks for the health of the public.

If the risks of harm are to be minimized and the principle of proportionality is to be met, it is essential to transform features of social and institutional context that undermine the provision of adequate resources and other needed support for health professionals. Economic structures, such as existing processes for reimbursement to health care institutions, are one example. Factors contributing to state budget deficits also demand attention. Taking a broader view, sustained financial support for strengthening the health system and its personnel has not been a priority for policy makers, a problem that has contributed to an overburdened health system and an inadequate pool of available health professionals as well as difficulties in recruiting [52]. Social norms also undervalue caregiving work, making it difficult to recruit new health workers. Sustained financial support for the health system and strategies for shifting social norms toward heightened respect for the work of caregivers should be moral priorities for policy makers in any case, but most certainly given expectations that health professionals will face danger for the sake of others in an emergency.

In perhaps the most visible initiative aimed at minimizing the risks of harm for a subset of health professionals, federal officials launched the smallpox vaccination program in 2003. While appreciative of this effort to provide them, and in turn, the public, with added protection, not all health professionals accepted the proposition that taking the vaccine was their duty. The refusal of some to participate in the vaccination program revealed the tension between health professionals' duties to others and their right to protect their own bodily integrity. Indeed, supporters of the smallpox vaccination program showed contempt for those who raised questions about the program or rejected it altogether. There are, they argued, "moral and medical reasons to deplore the decisions of physicians and hospital officials who opt[ed] not to participate. . . . Their job is not to assess intelligence risks or second guess public health officials" [53]. Reflection and debate over the program were construed not as exercises of autonomy, but instead as expressions of ingratitude, and seen as dangerous impediments to protecting against an imminent attack.

In a security-conscious environment, it might be assumed that by accepting the protection the government affords, we tacitly consent to any measures it deems necessary to protect us—including those that entail sacrifices of liberty. Yet, to the extent that such an assumption holds, unquestioning deference to authority can become the norm, which undermines the autonomy of health professionals as individual moral agents. An operating assumption of tacit consent also thwarts medical professionals' abilities to contribute to policy and, in turn, could compromise public health and safety.

Past experience suggests that when health professionals lack decision-making authority in a health emergency with national security implications, the health of the public suffers. When collaborating with other agencies, divergent institutional norms, objectives, and processes can thwart health professionals' efforts. Allegations about how the FBI and military officials' secrecy may have hindered the CDC's assessment, and in turn, swift and effective response to the anthrax-laced letters are an especially poignant example [54]. Most recently, health professionals have found frustration with Department of Defense officials over a study on the anthrax incidents that was censored for 2 years—and that is still not available in its entirety—on the basis of national security [31, 51]. Unless we achieve consensus on ideal decision-making structures and processes between justice authorities and health officials during crisis preparation and response, we risk undermining health protection.

Besides developing ethically defensible decision-making structures among agencies and institutions, it is essential to train individual clinicians in ethical decision making in crisis situations so they can effectively treat patients and provide information to colleagues and to the public. This means challenging institutional and professional norms that can marginalize ethics in the curriculum. Providing them with this essential resource will help clinicians minimize the risk to the public and will support ethical ideals such as respect for autonomy, privacy, and equality, and fair resource allocation in the face of challenges that, without preparation, could be overwhelming [55].

The Long-term Project: Protecting and Promoting Health

As we have seen, the assumption that social organization and cooperation should center around security has led to preparedness initiatives aimed at controlling or containing the health consequences of future acts of aggression. Yet the current emphasis on emergency preparedness presents profound social justice concerns. Society's vulnerable members and health professionals will be the most affected if emergency response planning diverts resources from urgently needed prevention and health promotion endeavors and from under-resourced hospitals, nursing and other health professional shortages, and the growing population who are underinsured or uninsured [52, 56-58]. The diversion of resources may undermine the nation's health and perpetuate, or even worsen, health disparities. This circumstance constrains health professionals capabilities to uphold the ideal of social justice. Economic and other structural reforms in health care and the public health system are urgently needed if social justice is to be recognizable in the health system and if emergency preparedness efforts are to have any hope of success.

Our methods for threat assessment and the role for health professionals in bioterrorism protections call for scrutiny. Some health policy makers believe the current focus on medical control or containment of extreme events rests upon highly controversial assumptions and reductive models for understanding the nature of the threat. The present approach may represent a troublesome retreat from advances in social medicine and social epidemiology. To understand the nature of the threat, we might also concentrate on the global economic structures that contribute to unstable production systems and jobs markets, weak democracies, the erosion of cultural identity and political freedoms, and the international weapons trade. Health professionals should work to enhance self-determination and equality and promote health security around the world instead of being compelled to focus their cooperative efforts on emergency preparedness on the homefront. Health professionals can play a vital role in addressing these and other social determinants of health [59]; yet present policy constrains their capacities to effectively promote health and to support social justice globally.

Emergency preparedness initiatives constitute an integral part of health systems globally. The changing landscape of health policy and practice presents ethical complexities about how to secure health and support the efforts of health professionals in the face of disaster and over time. It is essential to direct our attention to social and professional norms, institutional arrangements, and economic structures in the current context, and assess how they enhance or undermine ethical principles and ideals.

Lisa A.Eckenwiler, PhD, is an associate professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University and an adjunct professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School specializing in bioethics. Her work thus far has been in research ethics and ethics in public health. She is working on ethics and biodefense, global justice, and caregiving for the elderly, and on a book on the ethics of bioethics.



References

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The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.

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