New York’s hospital admissions are down, which is good news, but hospital resources are still stretched to a breaking point. Many have converted operating rooms to intensive care units. Before the outbreak, New York had 3,000 ICU beds, 80 percent of which were already occupied. As of last Monday, 4,593 New Yorkers were in intensive care.
Ethics in a medical shortage are complicated, but in most hospitals—whether religious, public, or private—they boil down to providing the most medical benefit to the most people. That also means prioritizing the treatment and health of healthcare workers, since they can save others’ lives. Bioethicists also agree that doctors should not be making these difficult rationing decisions about their own patients.
“Anyone who is going to make a rationing decision should be a more public-facing group: a hospital that makes that decision, or a hospital system, state lawmakers,” said Rob MacDougall, a bioethicist and professor at New York City College of Technology. “That way at least you don’t have to interfere in the physician-patient relationship. The patient might not get the care they need or want but it’s not the fault of the physician. It’s a public agency that’s responsible to voters, or to a hospital board.”
To further shield hospitals making rationing decisions, New York in April quickly passed a new law protecting doctors and hospitals from liability during the coronavirus outbreak. Bioethicists I talked to thought this was a good move and came with good parameters exempting criminal or reckless misconduct.
The important thing is for hospitals to have a workable bioethics policy that doctors can use before a pandemic comes. Even with an abundance of ventilators, hospitals face other shortages that require a bioethics policy.
“Sorting and prioritizing can be done ethically, and should be done, or you will lose more lives,” said Powell.
Some hospitals take ethical disaster preparation more seriously than others. MacDougall said Catholic hospitals tend to have tight bioethics guidelines and plans: “Part of it is they have wanted to preserve their viewpoints on things like abortion, contraceptives, end of life care. They have highly developed, technical teachings on those matters.”
In 2015, New York released guidelines for ventilator allocation in a shortage, but the guidelines are 272 pages long, limiting their usefulness to clinical staff already overwhelmed in a pandemic.
Powell said Montefiore came to the crisis prepared with a concise policy for scarcity scenarios, but the state hasn’t allowed the hospital to implement that policy formally.
“Maybe it needed to be revised [to address COVID-19],” Powell said. “But if we can build new hospitals for 1,000 people, I think we can go through a 10-page document and revise it.”
With 20 minutes left on the clock and no bioethics framework ahead of time to triage patients, the Covenant students wrestled with their inclination to prioritize younger patients for the ICU beds, patients who had a better chance of recovery. Eight minutes left. After they designated children and a mother with three children for the ICU beds, they had to prepare for an imaginary press conference to answer questions about their choices.
“I can see a family member of a patient saying, ‘Why did you let a younger person live?’ Why did we prioritize children over older people when everyone is the same value of a person?” said Jonah Hitchcock, one of the students.
“Ideally we treat all people with perfect equality,” said McKay, coming up with a proposed answer. “But that wasn’t possible in this scenario because resources were so limited. We had to make a decision based on some criteria. We wish it hadn’t happened that way but we didn’t have any other option.”
Professor Davis logged into the video chat.
“Time is up,” he told the class.