Who gets the Ventilator?

Anyone watching the news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the US during the past week could not have avoided considering this generic question. Some are living in regions where the question is much more personalized – “If there really are not enough to go around, will I get a ventilator if I need one?” Ethically allocating a scarce resource such as a ventilator during a global pandemic caused by a virus that can strike anyone and potentially cause death by respiratory failure is clearly one of the great bioethical challenges facing us. What follows is a brief, blog length, discussion of some of the pertinent concerns followed by links to more detailed exploration, written by bioethicists who have considered these issues in greater detail.

In the last blog entry, Joy Riley touched on the issue of one individual refusing a ventilator for the expressed benefit of others. While the whole story was more complex, the facts do remind us that treatment (and therefore utilization of scarce resources) should start by determining what the patient actually wants and whether the resource in question can have any meaningful benefit in that patient’s care. Jon Holmund began the discussion of what processes and protocols may ethically change during the pandemic with resource scarcity and what others should remain in force.

My last entry touched on the four Principles of Bioethics (Autonomy, Justice, Beneficence and non-Maleficence) as a simple outline. The Principles are often referenced in guiding the one-to-one ethical relationship between the doctor and patient. Limited resource allocation affecting a population as a whole would seem to demand a different or additional ethical framework. Utilitarianism is often used in this context since it is an ethical system that desires to maximize some good (happiness, pleasure, health), theoretically scalable by maximizing that good for a whole population. Some problems with utilitarianism are determining exactly what that good should be as a population and agreeing on exactly how to measure it.

In the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic, one utility is maximizing access to ventilators or, perhaps more broadly, maximizing the number of lives saved. This sounds promising. But what happens when two people (or more) need, and want, the same ventilator at the same time. How do you determine who gets the ventilator? Utilitarianism does not necessarily answer this question or the many following: Is it “first come-first served”? Do we draw straws (a lottery)? Is it the person who can “pay the highest price”? The person who “needs it immediately”? The person who only needs it for a short time (so that the ventilator can be used again to help someone else)? Does the ventilator go to the person who is responsible for saving other lives (such as a nurse, food supplier, ventilator maker – and if so, how does one prioritize among these)? Assuming these decisions can initially be made, can we change that decision later? For instance, if someone has been using the ventilator for a (long) while, is it ever ethical to remove that person so that someone else “has a chance”? If not, is it ethical to somehow prevent them from being selected for ventilator access in the first place?

None of the preceding questions are easily answered, particularly in the heat of the moment, and are therefore best answered, if they can be, at the outset. Once determined, they should be made public as transparent guidelines. If agreeable to all involved, then applicable equally to all involved, and implemented fairly as specifically outlined. No guidelines will be exhaustively perfect in their ability to stratify and prioritize access to save the lives of all involved – the best that may be accomplished is to save the greatest number of lives until the scarcity of ventilators is resolved or the pandemic has run its course.

Agreeing on an ethically acceptable method to allocate scarce resources in a theoretical pandemic is very difficult, even in the abstract; actually implementing such a plan during the emergency of the real pandemic warrants nothing short of divine guidance.

For those interested in reading further and/or deeper, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity has an excellent resource page with multiple links to other references. I found Dr. John Kilner’s “Criteria for the Allocation of Limited Healthcare Resources” very helpful.

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