COVID-19: where is the national ethical guidance?

BMC Medical Ethics 21 (1):1-3 (2020)

Abstract

BackgroundAs the COVID-19 pandemic develops, healthcare professionals are looking for support with, and guidance to inform, the difficult decisions they face. In the absence of an authoritative national steer in England, professional bodies and local organisations have been developing and disseminating their own ethical guidance. Questions inevitably arise, some of which are particularly pressing during the pandemic, as events are unfolding quickly and the field is becoming crowded. My central question here is: which professional ethical guidance should the professional follow?Main bodyAdopting a working definition of “professional ethical guidance”, I offer three domains for a healthcare professional to consider, and some associated questions to ask, when determining whether – in relation to any guidance document – they should “bin it or pin it”. First, the professional should consider the source of the guidance: is the issuing body authoritative or, if not, at least sufficiently influential that its guidance should be followed? Second, the professional should consider the applicability of the guidance, ascertaining whether the guidance is available and, if so, whether it is pertinent. Pertinence has various dimensions, including whether the guidance applies to this professional, this patient and/or this setting, whether it is up-to-date, and whether the guidance addresses the situation the professional is facing. Third, the professional should consider the methodology and methods by which the guidance was produced. Although the substantive quality of the guidance is important, so too are the methods by which it was produced. Here, the professional should ask whether the guidance is sufficiently inclusive – in terms of who has prepared it and who contributed to its development – and whether it was rigorously developed, and thus utilised appropriate processes, principles and evidence.ConclusionAsking and answering such questions may be challenging, particularly during a pandemic. Furthermore, guidance will not do all the work: professionals will still need to exercise their judgment in deciding what is best in the individual case, whether or not this concerns COVID-19. But such judgments can and should be informed by guidance, and hopefully these preliminary observations will provide some useful pointers for time-pressed professionals.

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