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
Principles concerning physician information (CMA policy – approved June 2002)
In an environment in which the capacity to capture, link and transmit information is growing and the need for fuller accountability is being created, the demand for physician information, and the number of people and organizations seeking to collect it, is increasing.
Physician information, that is, information that includes personal health information about and information that relates or may relate to the professional activity of an identifiable physician or group of physicians, is valuable for a variety of purposes. The legitimacy and importance of these purposes varies a great deal, and therefore the rationale and rules related to the collection, use, access and disclosure of physician information also varies. The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) developed this policy to provide guiding principles to those who collect, use, have access to or disclose physician information. Such people are termed “custodians,” and they should be held publicly accountable. These principles complement and act in concert with the CMA Health Information Privacy Code (1), which holds patient health information sacrosanct.
Physicians have legitimate interests in what information about them is collected, on what authority, by whom and for what purposes it is collected, and what safeguards and controls are in place. These interests include privacy and the right to exercise some control over the information; protection from the possibility that information will cause unwarranted harm, either at the individual or the group level; and assurance that interpretation of the information is accurate and unbiased. These legitimate interests extend to information about physicians that has been rendered in non-identifiable or aggregate format (e.g., to protect against the possibility of individual physicians being identified or of physician groups being unjustly stigmatized). Information in these formats, however, may be less sensitive than information from which an individual physician can be readily identified and, therefore, may warrant less protection.
The purposes for the use of physician information may be more or less compelling. One compelling use is related to the fact that physicians, as members of a self-regulating profession, are professionally accountable to their patients, their profession and society. Physicians support this professional accountability purpose through the legislated mandate of their regulatory colleges. Physicians also recognize the importance of peer review in the context of professional development and maintenance of competence.
The CMA supports the collection, use, access and disclosure of physician information subject to the conditions outlined below.
Purpose(s): The purpose(s) for the collection of physician information, and any other purpose(s) for which physician information may be subsequently used, accessed or disclosed, should be precisely specified at or before the collection. There should be a reasonable expectation that the information will achieve the stated purpose(s). The policy does not prevent the use of information for purposes that were not intended and not reasonably anticipated if principles 3 and 4 of this policy are met.
Consent: As a rule, information should be collected directly from the physician. Subject to principle 4, consent should be sought from the physician for the collection, use, access or disclosure of physician information. The physician should be informed about all intended and anticipated uses, accesses or disclosures of the information.
Conditions for collection, use, access and disclosure: The information should:
be limited to the minimum necessary to carry out the stated purpose(s),
be in the least intrusive format required for the stated purpose(s), and its collection, use, access and disclosure should not infringe on the physician’s duty of confidentiality with respect to that information.
Use of information without consent: There may be justification for the collection, use, access or disclosure of physician information without the physician’s consent if, in addition to the conditions in principle 3 being met, the custodian publicly demonstrates with respect to the purpose(s), generically construed, that:
the stated purpose(s) could not be met or would be seriously compromised if consent were required,
the stated purpose(s) is(are) of sufficient importance that the public interest outweighs to a substantial degree the physician’s right to privacy and right of consent in a free and democratic society, and
that the collection, use, access or disclosure of physician information with respect to the stated purpose(s) always ensures justice and fairness to the physician by being consistent with principle 6 of this policy.
Physician’s access to his or her own information: Physicians have a right to view and ensure, in a timely manner, the accuracy of the information collected about them. This principle does not apply if there is reason to believe that the disclosure to the physician will cause substantial adverse effect to others. The onus is on the custodian to justify a denial of access.
6. Information quality and interpretation: Custodians must take reasonable steps to ensure that the information they collect, use, gain access to or disclose is accurate, complete and correct. Custodians must use valid and reliable collection methods and, as appropriate, involve physicians to interpret the information; these physicians must have practice characteristics and credentials similar to those of the physician whose information is being interpreted.
7. Security: Physical and human safeguards must exist to ensure the integrity and reliability of physician information and to protect against unauthorized collection, use, access or disclosure of physician information.
8. Retention and destruction: Physician information should be retained only for the length of time necessary to fulfill the specified purpose(s), after which time it should be destroyed.
9. Inquiries and complaints: Custodians must have in place a process whereby inquiries and complaints can be received, processed and adjudicated in a fair and timely way. The complaint process, including how to initiate a complaint, must be made known to physicians.
10. Openness and transparency: Custodians must have transparent and explicit record-keeping or database management policies, practices and systems that are open to public scrutiny, including the purpose(s) for the collection, use, access and disclosure of physician information. The existence of any physician information record-keeping systems or database systems must be made known and available upon request to physicians.
11. Accountability: Custodians of physician information must ensure that they have proper authority and mandate to collect, use, gain access to or disclose physician information. Custodians must have policies and procedures in place that give effect to the principles in this document. Custodians must have a designated person who is responsible for monitoring practices and ensuring compliance with the policies and procedures.
(1) Canadian Medical Association. Health Information Privacy Code. CMAJ 1998;159(8):997-1016.