Efforts are being made to suppress the outbreak and expand medical capacity. But if forced to ration, medical workers ask, how do they make the least terrible decision? Who even gets to decide, and how are their choices justified?
In the United States, some guidelines already exist for this grim task. In an effort little known even among doctors, federal grant programs helped hospitals, states and the Veterans Health Administration develop what are essentially rationing plans for a severe pandemic. Now those plans, some of which may be outdated, are being revisited for the coronavirus outbreak.
But little research has been done to see whether the strategies would save more lives or years of life compared with a random lottery to assign ventilators or critical care beds — an option some support to avoid bias against people with disabilities and others.
Some commonly recommended rationing strategies, researchers found, could paradoxically increase the number of deaths. And protocols involve value judgments as much as medical ones, and have to take into account the public’s trust.
If hospitals withhold treatment by age, where do they draw the line? If they give lower priority to those with certain underlying health conditions, they may in effect be offering black Americans less treatment than white Americans. If physicians try to redirect resources — putting a patient on a ventilator for a few days, then giving it to someone else who appears to have better prospects — more people may die because few would get adequate treatment.
The federal government, so far at least, is not providing national rationing guidelines for the coronavirus outbreak. Officials from various states, medical associations and hospitals are discussing their own plans, potentially resulting in very different decisions on life-or-death matters about which there are deep disagreements, even among medical professionals.
“Maybe you end up saving more people but at the end you have got a society at war with itself. Some people are going to be told they don’t matter enough,” said Christina Pagel, a British researcher who studied the problem.
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