The current global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has presented the international medical community with unprecedented ethical challenges. The most difficult of these has involved making decisions about access to scarce resources when demand outweighs capacity.
In Canada, it is well accepted that everyone should have an equal opportunity to access and receive medical treatment. This is possible when there are sufficient resources. But in contexts of resource scarcity, when there are insufficient resources, difficult decisions have to be made about who receives critical care (e.g., ICU beds, ventilators) by triaging patients. Triage is a process for determining which patients receive treatment and/or which level of care under what circumstances in contexts of resource scarcity. Priority-setting for resource allocation becomes more ethically complex during catastrophic times or in public health emergencies, such as today’s COVID-19 pandemic, when there is a need to manage a potential surge of patients.
Physicians from China to Italy to Spain to the United States have found themselves in the unfathomable position of having to triage their most seriously ill patients and decide which ones should have access to ventilators and which should not, and which allocation criteria should be used to make these decisions. While the Canadian Medical Association hopes that Canadian physicians will not be faced with these agonizing choices, it is our intent, through this framework, to provide them with guidance in case they do and enable them to make ethically justifiable informed decisions in the face of difficult ethical dilemmas. Invoking this framework to ground decisions about who has access to critical care and who does not should only be made as a last resort. As always, physicians should carefully document their clinical and ethical decisions and the reasoning behind them.
Generally, the CMA would spend many months in deliberations and consultations with numerous stakeholders, including patients and the public, before producing a document such as this one. The current situation, unfortunately, did not allow for such a process. We have turned instead to documents, reports and policies produced by our Italian colleagues and ethicists and physicians from Canada and around the world, as well as provincial level documents and frameworks.
The CMA is endorsing and recommending that Canadian physicians use the guidance provided by Emmanuel and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine article dated from March 23rd, as outlined below. We believe these recommendations represent the best current approach to this situation, produced using the highest current standard of evidence by a panel of internationally recognized experts. We also recognize that the situation is changing constantly, and these guidelines may need to be updated as required.
The CMA will continue to advocate for access to personal protective equipment, ventilators and ICU equipment and resources. We also encourage physicians to make themselves aware of any relevant provincial or local documents, and to seek advice from their regulatory body or liability protection provider. It should be noted that some provinces and indeed individual health care facilities will have their own protocols or frameworks in place. At the time of its publication, this document was broadly consistent with those protocols that we were given an opportunity to review.
The CMA recognizes that physicians may experience moral distress when making these decisions. We encourage physicians to seek peer support and practice self-care. In addition, the CMA recommends that triage teams or committees be convened where feasible in order to help separate clinical decision making from resource allocation, thereby lessening the moral burden being placed on the individual physician.
The CMA recommends that physicians receive legal protection to ensure that they can continue providing needed care to patients with confidence and support and without fear of civil or criminal liability or professional discipline. In this time of uncertainty, physicians should be reassured that their good faith efforts to provide care during such a crisis will not put them at increased medical-legal risk. Providing such reassurance is needed so that physicians have the confidence to continue to provide care to their patients.
Recommendation 1: In the context of a pandemic, the value of maximizing benefits is most important. This value reflects the importance of responsible stewardship of resources: it is difficult to justify asking health care workers and the public to take risks and make sacrifices if the promise that their efforts will save and lengthen lives is illusory. Priority for limited resources should aim both at saving the most lives and at maximizing improvements in individuals’ post-treatment length of life. Saving more lives and more years of life is a consensus value across expert reports. It is consistent both with utilitarian ethical perspectives that emphasize population outcomes and with nonutilitarian views that emphasize the paramount value of each human life. There are many reasonable ways of balancing saving more lives against saving more years of life; whatever balance between lives and life-years is chosen must be applied consistently.
Limited time and information in a Covid-19 pandemic make it justifiable to give priority to maximizing the number of patients that survive treatment with a reasonable life expectancy and to regard maximizing improvements in length of life as a subordinate aim. The latter becomes relevant only in comparing patients whose likelihood of survival is similar. Limited time and information during an emergency also counsel against incorporating patients’ future quality of life, and quality-adjusted life-years, into benefit maximization. Doing so would require time-consuming collection of information and would present ethical and legal problems. However, encouraging all patients, especially those facing the prospect of intensive care, to document in an advance care directive what future quality of life they would regard as acceptable and when they would refuse ventilators or other life-sustaining interventions can be appropriate.
Operationalizing the value of maximizing benefits means that people who are sick but could recover if treated are given priority over those who are unlikely to recover even if treated and those who are likely to recover without treatment. Because young, severely ill patients will often comprise many of those who are sick but could recover with treatment, this operationalization also has the effect of giving priority to those who are worst off in the sense of being at risk of dying young and not having a full life.
Because maximizing benefits is paramount in a pandemic, we believe that removing a patient from a ventilator or an ICU bed to provide it to others in need is also justifiable and that patients should be made aware of this possibility at admission. Undoubtedly, withdrawing ventilators or ICU support from patients who arrived earlier to save those with better prognosis will be extremely psychologically traumatic for clinicians — and some clinicians might refuse to do so. However, many guidelines agree that the decision to withdraw a scarce resource to save others is not an act of killing and does not require the patient’s consent. We agree with these guidelines that it is the ethical thing to do. Initially allocating beds and ventilators according to the value of maximizing benefits could help reduce the need for withdrawal.
Recommendation 2: Irrespective of Recommendation 1, Critical Covid-19 interventions — testing, PPE, ICU beds, ventilators, therapeutics, and vaccines — should go first to front-line health care workers and others who care for ill patients and who keep critical infrastructure operating, particularly workers who face a high risk of infection and whose training makes them difficult to replace. These workers should be given priority not because they are somehow more worthy, but because of their instrumental value: they are essential to pandemic response. If physicians and nurses and RTs are incapacitated, all patients — not just those with Covid-19 — will suffer greater mortality and years of life lost. Whether health workers who need ventilators will be able to return to work is uncertain but giving them priority for ventilators recognizes their assumption of the high-risk work of saving others. Priority for critical workers must not be abused by prioritizing wealthy or famous persons or the politically powerful above first responders and medical staff — as has already happened for testing. Such abuses will undermine trust in the allocation framework.
Recommendation 3: For patients with similar prognoses, equality should be invoked and operationalized through random allocation, such as a lottery, rather than a first-come, first-served allocation process. First-come, first-served is used for such resources as transplantable kidneys, where scarcity is long-standing, and patients can survive without the scarce resource. Conversely, treatments for coronavirus address urgent need, meaning that a first-come, first-served approach would unfairly benefit patients living nearer to health facilities. And first-come, first-served medication or vaccine distribution would encourage crowding and even violence during a period when social distancing is paramount. Finally, first-come, first-served approaches mean that people who happen to get sick later on, perhaps because of their strict adherence to recommended public health measures, are excluded from treatment, worsening outcomes without improving fairness. In the face of time pressure and limited information, random selection is also preferable to trying to make finer-grained prognostic judgments within a group of roughly similar patients.
Recommendation 4: Prioritization guidelines should differ by intervention and should respond to changing scientific evidence. For instance, younger patients should not be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccines, which prevent disease rather than cure it, or for experimental post- or pre-exposure prophylaxis. Covid-19 outcomes have been significantly worse in older persons and those with chronic conditions. Invoking the value of maximizing saving lives justifies giving older persons priority for vaccines immediately after health care workers and first responders. If the vaccine supply is insufficient for patients in the highest risk categories — those over 60 years of age or with coexisting conditions — then equality supports using random selection, such as a lottery, for vaccine allocation. Invoking instrumental value justifies prioritizing younger patients for vaccines only if epidemiologic modeling shows that this would be the best way to reduce viral spread and the risk to others.
Epidemiologic modeling is even more relevant in setting priorities for coronavirus testing. Federal guidance currently gives priority to health care workers and older patients but reserving some tests for public health surveillance could improve knowledge about Covid-19 transmission and help researchers target other treatments to maximize benefits.
Conversely, ICU beds and ventilators are curative rather than preventive. Patients who need them face life-threatening conditions. Maximizing benefits requires consideration of prognosis — how long the patient is likely to live if treated — which may mean giving priority to younger patients and those with fewer coexisting conditions. This is consistent with the Italian guidelines that potentially assign a higher priority for intensive care access to younger patients with severe illness than to elderly patients. Determining the benefit-maximizing allocation of antivirals and other experimental treatments, which are likely to be most effective in patients who are seriously but not critically ill, will depend on scientific evidence. These treatments may produce the most benefit if preferentially allocated to patients who would fare badly on ventilation.
Recommendation 5: People who participate in research to prove the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics should receive some priority for Covid-19 interventions. Their assumption of risk during their participation in research helps future patients, and they should be rewarded for that contribution. These rewards will also encourage other patients to participate in clinical trials. Research participation, however, should serve only as a tiebreaker among patients with similar prognoses.
Recommendation 6: There should be no difference in allocating scarce resources between patients with Covid-19 and those with other medical conditions. If the Covid-19 pandemic leads to absolute scarcity, that scarcity will affect all patients, including those with heart failure, cancer, and other serious and life-threatening conditions requiring prompt medical attention. Fair allocation of resources that prioritizes the value of maximizing benefits applies across all patients who need resources. For example, a doctor with an allergy who goes into anaphylactic shock and needs life-saving intubation and ventilator support should receive priority over Covid-19 patients who are not frontline health care workers.
Approved by the CMA Board of Directors April 2020
Racism is a structural determinant of health and drives health and social inequities. The recent incidents of anti-Black violence, racism and discrimination in the US and Canada also shed light on the structural inequities and racism that exist within the medical profession and the health system.
The profession of medicine is grounded in respect for all people. This commitment recognizes that everyone has equal and inherent worth, the right to be valued and respected, and the right to be treated with dignity.
It’s critical that our medical culture – and society more broadly – upholds these values. But today, we’re reminded that there’s much more to do as a profession, and as a global community, to get us there.
Earlier this year, we launched our first-ever policy on equity and diversity in medicine Opens in a new window to help break down the many broad and systemic barriers that remain, to reduce discrimination and bias within our profession, and to create physically and psychologically safe environments for ourselves, our colleagues and our patients.
Alongside this policy comes a commitment to holding ourselves accountable to recognizing and challenging behaviours, practices and conditions that hinder equity and diversity, including racism.
Instances of racism, intolerance, exclusion, violence and discrimination have no place in medicine, and no place in our society. The Canadian Medical Association condemns racism in all its forms. Today, we stand alongside all those who have been affected by these appalling and inexcusable actions and beliefs.
Dr. Sandy Buchman
President, Canadian Medical Association
Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease (Update 2004) (Applicable to Canadians aged 20-60 years)
Obesity is a chronic condition that is multi-factorial in origin, complex to treat, and is a major contributor to heart disease, type II diabetes, hypertension, stroke and some cancers. Due to the magnitude of the impact that obesity has on heart disease and stroke, and to the clustering of risk factors for cardiovascular disease that are often found in the obese patient, obesity is recognized as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The impact of obesity points to the importance of prevention through healthy behaviours including increased physical activity and a healthy nutritional diet beginning early in life, and continuing through all stages of life. Solutions require comprehensive approaches that are both education and environment based, and that target and assist individuals, the family, and communities to engage in healthy lifestyle patterns and behaviours. Solutions also require ongoing research to develop and evaluate comprehensive approaches to obesity prevention, management and treatment, and surveillance data that measures and tracks obesity and its impact in Canada.
The World Health Organization defines obesity as a condition of excessive body fat accumulation to an extent that health may be compromised.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a widely accepted parameter used to distinguish between obese and non-obese adults aged 20 to 60 years and thus provides information about the subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease.
BMI is calculated by dividing the weight (in kilograms) by the square of the height (in metres).
BMI = weight (in kilograms)
height (in metres) * height (in metres)
A BMI equal to or greater than 30 kg/m2 is classified as obese, while a BMI in the range of 25 to 29.9 kg/m2 is classified as overweight.
Waist circumference (WC) provides an independent prediction of health risks over and above BMI. Increased waist (abdominal) circumference is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dyslipidemia, type II diabetes and hypertension. As waist circumference increases above 102 cm for men and 88 cm for women, the risks of health-related illnesses increase.
Populations at Increased Risk
Obese individuals with diabetes, hypertension, or dyslipidemias or who are physically inactive are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, compared to individuals without these conditions.
A BMI between 25 and 29.9 kg/m2 (overweight) is associated with elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and dyslipidemia.
Weight gain during young adult life may be one of the most important determinants of future development of cardiovascular risk factors and cardiovascular disease. Adults who gain weight have increased risk of coronary heart disease compared to those with stable weight. Weight gain during adult life may contribute to future development of ischemic heart disease regardless of initial body weight (obese or non-obese).
Canadians of Aboriginal, Chinese, and South Asian (from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) descent have higher rates of obesity-related chronic diseases (for example diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease).
Individuals with lower socio-economic status have higher rates of obesity than those with higher socio-economic status.
Promotion of Healthy Weights
In April 2002, the Public Health Approaches to the Prevention of Obesity (PHAPO) Working Group of the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) identified that a comprehensive approach to obesity prevention should:
Address both dietary habits and physical activity patterns of the population
Address both societal and individual level factors
Address both immediate and distant causes
Have multiple focal points and levels of intervention (i.e. at national, regional, community and individual levels);
Include both policies and programs; and
Build links between sectors that may otherwise be viewed as independent.
Research is needed to:
Develop a standard definition and a standard measurement technique for determining obesity in children.
Develop obesity measures for older, ethnic and gender specific populations.
Identify and develop effective primary prevention methods for individuals, families and communities to reduce the prevalence of obesity in all stages of life.
Improve awareness and knowledge about the health effects of obesity and healthy living.
Develop effective primary prevention measures and strategies that are therapeutic, secondary and tertiary in nature.
Identify and track rates of obesity and overweight in Canada.
Assess the effectiveness of obesity prevention and treatment initiatives.
Identify and implement the most effective primary prevention strategies for ethnic populations.
Develop and implement effective healthy public policy for the prevention, treatment, and management of obesity.
Further, the surveillance of obese and overweight Canadians is necessary in order to assess the effectiveness of prevention and treatment initiatives. It is only through the combined action and resources of governments, non-governmental organizations, non-profit and private sectors to develop and implement a comprehensive approach to curb the growing trend of obesity in Canada.
Auditing Physician Billings
The CMA has developed a set of guiding principles to assist in the formation and modification of provincial/territorial billing audit processes. These principles will ensure that billing audit systems are fair, transparent, effective and timely, and that they uphold their original objectives of ensuring the accountability of public expenditures and educating physicians on appropriate billing practices.
As payments to physicians are made through public monies, the integrity of the payment system is validated through physician billing audits and reviews. Audits and reviews are usually prompted by: billings that appear to be outside of the “norm,” patient complaints, physician complaints or a “focus” on a particular service/area of practice/group of physicians. Each province/territory is responsible for and has in place particular processes and procedures to review physician billings.
Billing audits can be stressful events that, regardless of the audit outcome, have had adverse effects on a physician’s health and practice. Although changes over the years in billing audit practices have occurred, they have not addressed all of the physicians’ concerns. Inadequacies in the existing procedures, such as the lack of a clear decision-making process, established review timelines and options for recourse still remain.
In response to this situation, many provinces/territories are reviewing and modifying their existing billing audit process. The CMA and Canada’s physicians believe in an open, accountable and transparent health care financing system. It is for this reason that the CMA has developed this set of principles related to the key components of the audit process to ensure it is fair, efficient, effective and serves the purpose it was originally intended – to ensure the accountability of public funds and to educate physicians on proper billing practices.
Education on proper billing practices:
The audit and review process must be undertaken as an educational exercise. In a fee based system, billing code use and interpretation are complex and can often lead to unintentional errors. If or when inconsistencies occur, the physician must be alerted and provided with the opportunity to explain his/her billing behaviour.
To assist in moving the audit and review process from under a cloud of perceived punishment to that of educational enlightenment, the repayment of any funds shall not commence until the audit and review process is complete and all appeal options have been exercised.
As part of this overall educational framework, it is recommended that all newly licensed physicians be offered an educational program on proper billing interpretations, procedures and practices, and of the audit process itself.
Fair, Transparent and Timely Process:
In order for the audit and review process to be perceived as fair, it must operate at arms length from governments and the Colleges. As a profession, physicians have been granted the privilege of self-regulation by society. Given that medicine is a highly complex art and science, physicians are the only group truly qualified to set and maintain standards and to uphold accountability in matters of professional behaviour.
The billing audit and review process must observe the principles of “Natural Justice” in that the:
audit findings must be both impartial and be seen to be impartial and
physicians affected by the findings must be offered a fair hearing by being given notice in writing of the findings; the opportunity to respond to the findings; all of the information to prepare a response; sufficient time to prepare a response; and an oral hearing if there is a dispute on factual matters or if requested by the physician.
Physicians should be informed that legal counsel and assistance can be retained at any stage of the audit and review process. Physicians should consult with their respective provincial/territorial division or the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA) to see whether such assistance is available, or with lawyers who specialize in this field.
Specific time limits should be adhered to in the auditing and reviewing of a physician’s billings practice, particularly related to when the review period should commence and to the duration of the review period. For example, billings should not be reviewable more than 24 months after the service is rendered and the review period should not be greater than 12 months. These limitation periods recognize that physicians will not be able to recall, with certainty, the vast amount of information contained in a patient’s medical record over the past 10 years – the average length of time in which medical records must be held. It also ensures that audits and reviews are conducted in a timely fashion minimizing undue stress and hardship on the physician and, in light of the health human resources shortage, enabling them to re-focus their attention and energy on taking care of their patients.
Audits and reviews to determine whether there has been any incorrect or inaccurate billing should be undertaken solely by a physician’s peers, and where possible, consisting of physicians from the same specialty and subspecialty and with similar practice type, geography and demography. This peer review group shall consider age-gender distribution and the morbidity of the patients as well as other pertinent matters in arriving at its findings and conclusions.
Any conclusions and/or findings from an audit and review must be prepared in a written report and forwarded, in a timely manner, to the physician and the paying agency. If either party is not satisfied with the findings, they have the option of launching an appeal.
The preferred route would be to pursue and use Alternative Dispute Resolution processes since they tend to encourage a more co-operative climate resulting in fair and appropriate settlements, while avoiding the excessive financial, psychological and procedural costs that can be associated with formal court proceedings.
These guiding principles are the product of an international, provincial and territorial scan of billing audit practices. They have undergone extensive consultation with the provincial/territorial medical associations and national medical organizations.
They should be used to form the foundation of and to guide any reviews or modifications to existing provincial/territorial audit and review processes.
CMA Policy, Medical Professionalism, 2002.
Student Behaviour Guide_Natural.Justice.htm, Dec. 2002