Medical Ethics Think Tank Provides Ethical Framework for Managing Coronavirus

Ryan Hubbard, PhD
3 min readMar 25, 2020
Photo by Marcelo Leal

The prominent medical ethics research institute, The Hastings Center, has released a document outlining an ethical framework for healthcare institutions to aid them in managing care in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I believe this discussion would benefit all healthcare professionals by outlining the ethical terrain that lies ahead.

The document — titled ‘Ethical Framework for Health Care Institutions and Guidelines for Institutional Ethics Services Responding to the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic’ — discusses three points: ethical challenges healthcare providers may face, ethical duties of healthcare leaders, and examples of institutional policies. I will address the first two points.

Ethical Challenges

The overarching ethical challenge for healthcare institutions posed by the outbreak is balancing normal patient-centered care with public health interests. Patient-centered care during normal circumstances stresses accommodating individual patient interests and values. However, due to the nature of a pandemic and the resulting scarcity of medical resources, healthcare professionals will need to shift toward an ethics driven by public interest. As the authors write, the public-centered approach “aims to promote the health of the population by minimizing morbidity and mortality through the prudent use of resources and strategies.” This requires curtailing the patient-centered approach to medical decision-making, especially regarding resource allocation.

Healthcare facilities would do well to protect the psychological well-being of its professionals, which is at risk due to potential moral injury.

The result is a “tension between the patient-centered approach of clinical care under normal circumstances and the public-centered approach of clinical care under emergency conditions.” This may require “prioritize[ing] the community above the individual in fairly allocating scarce resources.” If medical resources become highly scarce, for example, the normal first-come, first-served policy should be jettisoned in favor of prioritizing patients who would benefit the most from treatment.

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Ryan Hubbard, PhD

A philosophy professor who works in practical ethics. @ryankhubbard