By Avigile Baehr
Overhead pages are a staple of a busy ER. They give doctors and nurses a couple extra minutes to prepare for the quick action needed to save patients’ lives after strokes, heart attacks, or trauma. Now, imagine a case today:
Attention, ER staff. A 32 year old female at high risk for Ebola is coming in via ambulance with fever, vomiting, and unstable vital signs. If you are willing to accept the personal risk inherent in providing medical care to this patient, please report to room 3. Otherwise, please disregard this announcement.
A conditional appeal, not an imperative. A qualification that seems to run counter to the oaths that medical professionals take. And yet, a stipulation that hospitals and healthcare providers have considered as they decide how and whether to engage with this deadly infection. Ebola poses a very real threat to providers: two nurses contracted the virus while caring for a patient in Dallas, and California nurses have gone on strike in response to lack of preparedness for safely dealing with the infection. Given the disease’s documented transmission to healthcare providers, its high fatality rate, and the lack of an FDA-approved treatment or vaccine, what are our professional obligations in caring for these patients?
The classic principles of medical ethics are autonomy, beneficence, justice, and nonmaleficence. For the purposes of the ‘obligation to treat’ dilemma, I will assume that Ebola patients want to receive treatment, and I will not consider the ethics of experimental treatments as they might relate to the ‘do no harm’ principle. The principles of beneficence and justice, however, are particularly salient to this question. Healthcare providers are not merely obligated to do no harm, but we must also do good by our patients. Despite the uncertainty regarding some experimental treatments for Ebola, timely supportive care is unquestionably beneficial for these patients. Intravenous fluids help prevent shock and organ failure. Breathing tubes can keep patients alive until the virus runs its course. In certain cases, CPR can restart a heart and give someone a chance to survive. Fair and equitable treatment of Ebola patients requires that they be treated by the same clinical standards that apply to any other critically ill patient. By these core principles, the ethical imperative to provide medical treatment to Ebola patients is clear.
What argument can be made, then, for refusing to provide comprehensive medical treatment to a patient with Ebola?
Perhaps providers are only obligated by these principles once they accept someone as a patient. Can a doctor or nurse then ethically refuse to engage in a provider-patient relationship with someone suffering from Ebola, thus freeing him or her of any obligation to treat?
In routine medical care, maybe or maybe not. Most states have specific clauses that allow providers to refuse to provide certain treatment, such as abortion care, on the basis of moral objections. But, both the law and medical professional societies uniquely distinguish emergency situations as obligating medical treatment without qualification. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act requires that all hospitals who offer emergency care services and who receive any Medicare funding (read: the vast majority of US hospitals) evaluate and stabilize any patient who seeks medical care. This law was designed to prevent hospitals from refusing to treat uninsured or underinsured patients, but it also serves to promote fairness and ameliorate other treatment disparities. Similarly, the American Medical Association Principles of Medical Ethics dictates that physicians should be free to choose the terms in which they agree to provide medical care, except in emergencies. By virtue of their agreement to serve as medical professionals, providers implicitly engage in a patient-provider relationship with anyone who seeks urgent care at their facility.
But, perhaps there should be an exception for personal risk. A similar dilemma with concern for provider safety arose in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but both the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association explicitly reaffirmed the duty to treat. Both professional societies appealed to fairness, stating that a patient should not be subjected to discrimination based on any characteristic, including disease status. There is a utilitarian argument to be made in support of this personal risk exception: if a provider treats and subsequently contracts Ebola from one patient, then that provider’s other patients might suffer. However, in the United States, healthcare associated transmission of Ebola remains an incredibly rare event, and a utilitarian analysis does not fall in favor of refusing to treat Ebola patients. Two of the 170+ people who had direct or possible contact with the three Ebola patients from Dallas contracted the virus, and no healthcare provider has died from Ebola transmission in the United States. To put this number in context, an estimated one in ten healthcare workers experiences a needle stick each year, placing them at risk for blood borne pathogens such as HIV and Hepatitis C. Providing care for sick patients inherently carries a certain degree of risk, but so long as providers are able to mitigate that risk through personal protective equipment and standard precautions, this does not excuse them from their professional responsibilities.
In conclusion, the basic principles of medical ethics unequivocally support treatment of Ebola patients. Ebola patients can present in critical condition and require timely medical care, thus placing them in the category of a medical emergency and further obligating providers and hospitals to accept these patients for treatment. Personal risk might be an important consideration, but the risk of transmission can be appropriately mitigated through proper protective equipment in the United States. Ebola patient in room 3? That announcement will never sound routine, but we must treat even these patients fairly and by the highest standards of medical care.
Avi is currently an MD/MBE candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated from Vanderbuilt University in 2011 with a degree in biology and philosophy. This post was chosen as a finalist for the 2014-2015 Daniel Callahan Young Writer’s Prize.