Tragic choices in intensive care during the COVID-19 pandemic: on fairness, consistency and community

Journal of Medical Ethics 46 (10):646-651 (2020)
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Abstract

Tragic choices arise during the COVID-19 pandemic when the limited resources made available in acute medical settings cannot be accessed by all patients who need them. In these circumstances, healthcare rationing is unavoidable. It is important in any healthcare rationing process that the interests of the community are recognised, and that decision-making upholds these interests through a fair and consistent process of decision-making. Responding to recent calls to safeguard individuals’ legal rights in decision-making in intensive care, and for new authoritative national guidance for decision-making, this paper seeks to clarify what consistency and fairness demand in healthcare rationing during the COVID-19 pandemic, from both a legal and ethical standpoint. The paper begins with a brief review of UK law concerning healthcare resource allocation, considering how community interests and individual rights have been marshalled in judicial deliberation about the use of limited health resources within the National Health Service. It is then argued that an important distinction needs to be drawn between procedural and outcome consistency, and that a procedurally consistent decision-making process ought to be favoured. Congruent with the position that UK courts have adopted for resource allocation decision-making in the NHS more generally, specific requirements for a procedural framework and substantive triage criteria to be applied within that framework during the COVID-19 pandemic are considered in detail.

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