Who Will Live and Who will Die? Some US Hospitals Weigh Withholding Care to Ebola Patients

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Health care workers display protective gear, which hospital staff would wear to protect them from an Ebola virus infection, inside an isolation room as part of a media tour of the emergency department of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan

Photo credit: Reuters

The Ebola crisis is forcing the American healthcare system to consider the previously unthinkable: withholding some medical interventions because they are too dangerous to doctors and nurses and unlikely to help a patient.

US hospitals have over the years come under criticism for undertaking measures that prolong dying rather than improve patients’ quality of life. But the care of the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, who received dialysis and intubation and infected two nurses caring for him, is spurring hospitals and medical associations to develop the first guidelines for what can reasonably be done and what should be withheld.

Officials from at least three hospital systems interviewed by Reuters said they were considering whether to withhold individual procedures or leave it up to individual doctors to determine whether an intervention would be performed. Ethics experts say they are also fielding more calls from doctors asking what their professional obligations are to patients if healthcare workers could be at risk.

US health officials meanwhile are trying to establish a network of about 20 hospitals nationwide that would be fully equipped to handle all aspects of Ebola care. Their concern is that poorly trained or poorly equipped hospitals that perform invasive procedures will expose staff to bodily fluids of a patient when they are most infectious. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with kidney specialists on clinical guidelines for delivering dialysis to Ebola patients. The recommendations could come as early as this week.

The possibility of withholding care represents a departure from the “do everything” philosophy in most American hospitals and a return to a view that held sway a century ago, when doctors were at greater risk of becoming infected by treating dying patients.

“This is another example of how this 21st century viral threat has pulled us back into the 19th century,” said medical historian Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan.

Some ethicists and physicians take issue with the shift. Because the world has almost no experience treating Ebola patients in state-of-the-art facilities rather than the rudimentary ones in Africa, there are no reliable data on when someone truly is beyond help, whether dialysis can make the difference between life and death, or even whether cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can be done safely with proper protective equipment and protocols.

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