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The sweep of Covid-19 across the globe has raised a fundamental question about medical ethics: Do physicians, nurses, EMTs, and other health care workers have moral and legal obligations to risk their health and lives to treat patients during a pandemic?

It’s an important question, given the toll that Covid-19 is taking on medical professionals. As we write this, more than 100,000 health care workers have been infected in the United States alone and nearly 550 have died from Covid-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that health care workers accounted for 11% to 16% of Covid-19 infections during the first wave.

To answer this fundamental question, we first need to define the ethical and legal duties of physicians during a pandemic or a war or a bioterrorist attack — and these aren’t necessarily clear. It is quite revealing that when students graduate from medical school, they all take various oaths modeled on the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Geneva. None of these include any statement that physicians must risk their lives in caring for patients.

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There are conflicting perspectives on defining the responsibilities of medical professionals during an epidemic. Some have taken the position that medical professionals who refuse to work in hospitals during this pandemic should lose their jobs or even their licenses. This perspective is based on the idea that medicine is a humanitarian profession that requires health care workers to care for the sick under all conditions. By freely entering into this profession, so the thinking goes, physicians and other health care professionals have implicitly agreed to accept all dangers and risks.

This view is consistent with that of the General Medical Council in the United Kingdom, which asserts that physicians have an obligation to provide urgent medical care during disasters, even when there is a significant health risk to providing that care.

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The American Medical Association takes a different position. Its 2020 update of Opinion 8.3 sets out physicians’ obligations in this pandemic to “provide urgent medical care during disasters … even in the face of greater than usual risk to physicians’ own safety, health or life.” Opinion 8.3 also recognizes that if the risks of providing care to individual patients are too dangerous, then physicians can refrain from treating Covid-19 patients because doing so may hinder their ability to provide care in the future.

The American Nurses Association offers similar advice, stating that during pandemics, nurses must decide how much care they can provide while also taking care of themselves. Nurses may refrain from working when they feel physically unsafe due to a lack of personal protective equipment or inadequate testing for infections.

Many ethicists believe that physicians and health care professionals may, at times, refuse to care for patients when their service conflicts with their own moral views. For example, physicians do not have to comply with a patient’s wish to terminate a pregnancy, or assist in euthanasia, if that conflicts with their moral framework. These ethicists recognize that emotions and motivations are integral parts of any moral decision-making process. There are no rigid rules. Choices must be adapted to the particulars of each given situation. For example, the moral duty not to harm or kill another person includes self-care for the clinician who is providing care to these highly infectious patients. It is akin to not requiring paramedics to enter a building on the verge of collapse to aid someone inside.

A health care professional’s specialty may also influence his or her moral obligation to treat a patient or refuse to do so. One who specializes in infectious diseases may not have the moral autonomy to refuse to treat Covid-19 patients, while one whose specialty is ophthalmology, cosmetic surgery, or dermatology can reasonably maintain a moral obligation to serve as a medical consultant or serve in some other capacity in the hospital, but not take on the risks of treating Covid-19 patients.

Physicians and other health care professionals must also balance their obligations as professionals with their duties as husbands, wives, parents, and children. The risk to personal health from the coronavirus is alarming enough, but the risk of infecting family members, especially those with a higher risk of infection, may be ethically and morally unacceptable. Health care professionals’ refusal to work in a state of emergency may be justified if their health or well-being is endangered because of medical susceptibilities such as heart problems, diabetes, pregnancy, and the like that place them at a high risk of contracting and dying from the virus, or if they reasonably believe that their work environment creates an unacceptable hazard by not providing them with essential personal protective equipment.

Historical lessons offer insight into this ethical conundrum. For example, the history of secular medical ethics reveals that the medical community has never come to a consensus on the nature and scope of its responsibilities during an epidemic. The lack of consensus may be due in part to the fact that medical ethics are embedded in various broader social and cultural fabrics.

Jewish law supports the view that a person is obligated to save another, though there are situations in which the dangers or risks are so high that these moral obligations are not mandatory. Rabbinical scholars have concluded that physicians have an extra obligation to heal the sick and are expected to accept a greater degree of risk than nonphysicians, due to their training and nature of their work. Yet they must also be prudent in their obligation to protect their families. Interestingly, rabbinical scholars maintain that treating Covid-19 patients is not mandatory but is considered to be a great act of compassionate professionalism and is highly praiseworthy.

We believe that the question of whether health care workers must risk their lives to treat Covid-19 patients does not have one uniform answer. We do believe that health care workers who specialize in infectious disease or respiratory medicine have a greater responsibility to treat Covid-19 patients than health care workers in other subspecialties of medicine. Moreover, most, but not all, health care workers have a professional obligation to provide some medical service during this pandemic. Society, however, should be understanding of those health care workers who may defer their medical responsibilities because of their own personal health risks or extenuating family responsibilities.

While it is important for physicians and other health care workers to explore and come to terms with their moral and legal obligations to care for patients with Covid-19, this will not be our last pandemic. That is why it is essential to incorporate these issues into the medical and health science educational curricula and get students thinking about them early. Professional education should help students — and practicing health care workers — learn how to balance their health risks with the immediate benefits to individual patients and the capacity to care for patients in the future.

The moral obligation, the courage, the compassion, and even the heroism of millions of clinicians on the front lines are what professionalism is all about.

Alan Kadish is a cardiologist, researcher, and president of the Touro College and University System. John Loike is a professor of biology at the Touro College and University System and writes a regular column on bioethics for The Scientist.

  • Never have healthcare workers faced such loss of life, had to reuse PPE or been at greater personal risk than they are today. To say that they are overworked and underpaid describes nothing of how tired and emotionally shattered and drained they must feel at the end of each shift. And nobody is doing more for this country, our parents, neighbors and kids than our healthcare workers. And what are we doing for them? We wont wear a mask. We don’t care for ourselves. We don’t care about anybody else. Our country has never so completely turned it’s back on science and medicine as it has done today. And we have completely failed both the American people and those crucial few who save so many and who we all depend on. Why should those crucial few (hcp) have to give so much when we give so little. I vote you don’t have to come to work untill we all start doing our part too. (Hcp) can not fix covid-19 pandemic. It takes government direction and following that direction…

  • This is as an easy oneband no brainer. Since they get higher and often first priority for receiving PPE’s, testing and most likely vaccines when available, they ought to do their job! Two more things are they have almost no risk of becoming unemployed! They would probably get preferential access to the ICU, ventilators, and remdesivir if the hospital have some supply.
    So please stop whining and show up for work since that is your JOB!

    • Terrible disposition and minimization of the dangers to health care workers, Mr. Chu. Hope you wear a mask, practice social distance, and can present yourself more likeable to those that might need to save your life.

  • tricky situation.
    Health care workers may have also taken other oaths, e.g. marital vows to care for a We also take an oath to our marital partner, to protect them and the unspoken oath to care for our offspring.
    Maybe we have to include the concept of triage, a long standing medical plan where professional experience advises when to treat or not treat the worst cases that have near O% chance of recovery and may represent greater than normal risk to the healer, and concentrate on the patients with the greatest chance of recovery
    , and may expose the healthcare provider to increased risk.

  • Now think about the physicians and nurses who treated those patients with Ebola a few years ago. Much more deadly.

  • The piece implies that the CFR for health care workers is 0.55%. That’s remarkably low. It wouldn’t be surprising if most of the fatalities were in the early days as the system reorganized itself to handle the scourge. Wondering what the second-wave CFR is now that treatments are available, standard of care has improved and high risk workers are better able to self-protect.

  • It is easy for two academics on University arm chairs, not exposed to the Covid front lines, to state / conclude : “The moral obligation, the courage, the compassion, and even the heroism of millions of clinicians on the front lines are what professionalism is all about.” Health care workers should not be expected to risk exposure of themselves and their families – to take care of morons who refuse to wear a mask or practice social distance and who partied on a beach or in a bar. Were I a health care worker, I would be livid to run a high risk for idiots who do not care about anyone but themselves.

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