Should age matter in COVID-19 triage? A deliberative study

Journal of Medical Ethics (forthcoming)
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The COVID-19 pandemic put a large burden on many healthcare systems, causing fears about resource scarcity and triage. Several COVID-19 guidelines included age as an explicit factor and practices of both triage and ‘anticipatory triage’ likely limited access to hospital care for elderly patients, especially those in care homes. To ensure the legitimacy of triage guidelines, which affect the public, it is important to engage the public’s moral intuitions. Our study aimed to explore general public views in the UK on the role of age, and related factors like frailty and quality of life, in triage during the COVID-19 pandemic. We held online deliberative workshops with members of the general public. Participants were guided through a deliberative process to maximise eliciting informed and considered preferences. Participants generally accepted the need for triage but strongly rejected ‘fair innings’ and ‘life projects’ principles as justifications for age-based allocation. They were also wary of the ‘maximise life-years’ principle, preferring to maximise the number of lives rather than life years saved. Although they did not arrive at a unified recommendation of one principle, a concern for three core principles and values eventually emerged: equality, efficiency and vulnerability. While these remain difficult to fully respect at once, they captured a considered, multifaceted consensus: utilitarian considerations of efficiency should be tempered with a concern for equality and vulnerability. This ‘triad’ of ethical principles may be a useful structure to guide ethical deliberation as societies negotiate the conflicting ethical demands of triage.



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Margot Nicole I. Kuylen
University of Essex