COVID-19 has highlighted the ethical challenges in our health-care system, and nowhere is this more apparent than in an overcrowded intensive care unit. ICUs are where the sickest of the sick receive life-saving treatments and where their crashing bodily functions are taken over by high-tech machines.
Even when there isn’t a pandemic, not everyone can get access to intensive care, and not everyone will benefit from it. It is costly, invasive and requires a highly skilled workforce to make it run.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world were shocked by the images of ICU doctors working around the clock in Wuhan, Turin and New York. Their faces were etched with bruises from their tight-fitting face masks. Their eyes were haunted by the sheer number of patients they were treating – and by the sheer number they couldn’t treat.
These early warnings from other countries signaled that Canadian provinces needed to avoid a major surge of patients that would strain intensive care resources. But, preparing for the worst, work on guidance for intensive care triage began very early on in the pandemic, with Saskatchewan and Quebec starting in late winter 2020 and Ontario in the spring of 2020 across several of its COVID-19 advisory tables.
As bioethicists involved in developing an ethical framework for ICU triage at the Ontario COVID-19 Bioethics Table, we have serious concerns about the lack of transparency and public engagement around the constraints the Table works under. To be clear, we do not speak on behalf of the COVID-19 Bioethics Table, but we do speak as scholars in clinical and public health ethics and in human rights law who are also members of that Table.
We are beholden to the public as bioethicists helping to develop guidance for the ethical use of public resources – especially to the people most likely to be impacted by intensive care triage decisions – as well as to the physicians who will be forced to make these fraught decisions. This requires that the process be informed, transparent, inclusive, reasonable and subject to revision in light of new information or legitimate concerns or claims.
To date, these requirements have not been met in several provinces, including Ontario, and we entreat governments to make available their triage frameworks and protocols for public deliberation.
Rationing intensive care beds is fundamentally an ethical endeavour
Science alone cannot tell us how to allocate ICU beds. Should they go to the sickest patients? Should they go to those who are most likely to benefit from treatment? Should we use a lottery system? Should we withdraw treatment from patients if they are not going to have a meaningful recovery to give the bed to someone who will? And what constitutes a meaningful recovery? These are ethical questions requiring value judgements.
Many pandemic response plans focus on maximizing the benefit of scarce resources to save the most lives. Allocating ICU beds to people who are unlikely to benefit from them is often considered unethical and inefficient. Clinicians who work in the ICU often talk about the moral difficulty of providing treatments that sometimes do more harm than good. The moral burden of care in these circumstances weighs heavily on ICU clinicians when left to make these decisions alone and without ethical guidance.
How should health equity be balanced with utility in intensive care triage?
Society’s failure to address upstream causes of ill health and inequities means that the futility or efficacy of ICU care is often determined well before people are brought to the doors of an ICU. To fail to attend to this in triage frameworks and clinical protocols undermines trust. Whose lives we save is not just a matter of how we apply clinical criteria. It is a matter of redressing unfair inequalities in health and a matter of protecting fundamental human rights.
And while utility is one worthwhile objective of health policy, it must be balanced with due consideration of the human rights of people who might be disproportionately, unjustifiably or morally harmed by clinically based triage decisions. Relying on clinical criteria like judgments about mortality risk in the short or long term, functional status or clinical frailty scores compounds health inequities by failing to help distribute health benefits fairly across society through explicit consideration of social disadvantage.
Human rights advocates, disability rights advocates, Indigenous health partners and members of the Black community have voiced concerns about the potential for discrimination when triage does not take stock of societal factors and when they are not involved in the process of developing triage criteria. Meaningful inclusion of these communities and their perspectives is essential for the ethical legitimacy of ICU triage frameworks to balance utility with equity.
The public needs to join the conversation on an ethical approach to triage
Consensus on a proposed ethical framework for pandemic triage, even just among bioethicists, is unrealistic. Nor is it necessarily desirable. In fact, the role of dissensus in bioethics is crucial to avoiding the narrowing of possible policy avenues and avoiding presumptive constructions of various stakeholders.
As bioethicists, our expertise is in sketching the moral landscape, providing options and framing ethical debate. Our job is to propose a possible approach to intensive care triage that the public and stakeholders can then weigh and deliberate. It is also to propose and promote accessible and ethically defensible processes for doing so.
Bioethicists are not moral authorities, and governments ought not decide on an approach to intensive care triage without engaging in broader moral deliberation with the public and with those who will be most affected.
To be sure, public deliberation will not make the decisions about how to prioritize patients for intensive care any easier, nor will it necessarily make it easier to live with the consequences. But it would ensure that all voices have been heard, innovative approaches have been considered, and that new ethical considerations can come to light. It is a distinctly political obligation to ensure that the triage protocol is grounded in an ethical, democratic process and that it is based on values that have been justified through stated public reasons.
We join the COVID-19 Bioethics Table, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and disability rights advocates in calling for transparency and public deliberation on the unfinished work of developing Ontario’s approach to critical care triage in a major surge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other provinces must also follow suit. Specific attention needs to be paid to partnering with people who have been marginalized by both the process and the products of ICU triage development.
The protection of fundamental legal and human rights during an emergency is a litmus test for society, and we need to do everything in our power to avoid overriding rights unjustifiably. Without public discussion, the vulnerability of already marginalized groups is intensified and trust eroded.
No province in Canada can claim to have a morally legitimate and human rights compliant approach to triage until an accessible and public discussion takes place about how to balance equity with the aim of saving lives in a pandemic.