Coronavirus: Extraordinary Decisions For Doctors - The Atlantic

Will it come to this?




One week ago, Italy had 2,502 cases of the virus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. At that point, doctors in the country’s hospitals could still perform the most lifesaving functions by artificially ventilating patients who experienced acute breathing difficulties.

Today, Italy has 10,149 cases of coronavirus. There are now simply too many patients for each one of them to receive adequate care. Doctors and nurses are unable to tend to everybody. They lack machines to ventilate all those gasping for air.

There are now simply too many patients for each one of them to receive adequate care.
Now the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care (SIAARTI) has published guidelines for the criteria that doctors and nurses should follow in these extraordinary circumstances. The document begins by likening the moral choices facing Italian doctors to the forms of wartime triage that are required in the field of “catastrophe medicine.” Instead of providing intensive care to all patients who need it, its authors suggest, it is becoming necessary to follow “the most widely shared criteria regarding distributive justice and the appropriate allocation of limited health resources.”


The principle they settle upon is utilitarian. “Informed by the principle of maximizing benefits for the largest number,” they suggest that “the allocation criteria need to guarantee that those patients with the highest chance of therapeutic success will retain access to intensive care.”

The authors, who are medical doctors, then deduce a set of concrete recommendations for how to manage these impossible choices, including this: “It may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care.”

Those who are too old to have a high likelihood of recovery, or who have too low a number of “life-years” left even if they should survive, will be left to die. This sounds cruel, but the alternative, the document argues, is no better. “In the case of total saturation of resources, maintaining the criterion of ‘first come, first served’ would amount to a decision to exclude late-arriving patients from access to intensive care.”

In addition to age, doctors and nurses are also told to take a patient’s overall state of health into account: “The presence of comorbidities needs to be carefully evaluated.” This is in part because early studies of the virus seem to suggest that patients with serious preexisting health conditions are significantly more likely to die. But it is also because patients in a worse state of overall health could require a greater share of scarce resources to survive: “What might be a relatively short treatment course in healthier people could be longer and more resource-consuming in the case of older or more fragile patients.”

These guidelines apply even to patients who require intensive care for reasons other than the coronavirus because they too make demands on the same scarce medical resources. As the document clarifies, “These criteria apply to all patients in intensive care, not just those infected with CoVid-19.”

But if Italy is in an impossible position, the obligation facing the United States is very clear: To arrest the crisis before the impossible becomes necessary.

This means that our political leaders, the heads of business and private associations, and every one of us needs to work together to accomplish two things: Radically expand the capacity of the country’s intensive-care units. And start engaging in extreme forms of social distancing.  

                          

The Shortages May Be Worse Than the Disease

Over the centuries, societies have shown a long history of making the effects of epidemics worse and furthering their own destruction.

Cancel everything. Now.








Coronavirus: Extraordinary Decisions For  Doctors - The Atlantic: