Continuing the legacy of critical ethical analysis of contemporary medical issues

Beecher Prize Winners

  • Should Physicians’ Family Members Receive Special Treatment?

    by Samuel Doernberg
    2021 Winning Essay

    Should Physicians’ Family Members Receive Special Treatment?

    The family member of a physician visits the Emergency Department at the hospital where that physician works. The medical team is aware that this is the family member of a colleague. As a result, that patient receives special treatment: they are visited more frequently and attentively by staff, vaulted to the front of the line for diagnostic tests, and brought to the floor as soon as the decision is made to admit them without any wait time in the ED. The medical team is in contact with their physician colleague[1] more frequently than they would be if it was the family member of any other patient. Is this special treatment ethically justified? 

    What does special treatment consist of?

    Special access to care can be provided in many different contexts. It can occur in the outpatient clinic, the emergency department, or on admission to the hospital. Although the clinical context may differ, the types of treatment that may be made available are relatively similar. Special treatment most commonly consists of increased awareness of and attention to the patient in question. It may involve more aggressive pain control, shorter wait times, more frequent visits by clinical staff, and additional diagnostic testing for the purpose of being ‘thorough’, which may result overall in the earlier identification of complications. The care team is likely to involve a physician colleague more in care planning than would be the case for the family members of other patients. 

    It is unclear whether special treatment leads to better outcomes. This is an understudied area; it is hard to evaluate for practical and political reasons. As a result, there is no systematic evidence about this question. The little anecdotal evidence that is available suggests that professional connections to a patient’s family member can cause “subtle changes in decision making”[2]. These changes may lead either to improved care, or to unnecessary tests and services that may not be clinically meaningful or that may even lead to harm.

    Ethical Significance

    The ethical significance of this issue is twofold. First and foremost, it concerns the allocation of physicians’ time, attention, and care, which are some of the most important yet underappreciated resources that clinicians possess. These resources are already unevenly distributed: physicians spend more time with patients of certain races and ages, a practice that influences patient satisfaction[3], which can in turn affect how connected patients feel to care and even how likely they are to seek care in the future. More time spent with some patients means less time for others who may benefit from it.

    Second, special treatment raises questions about the nature of professional medical relationships. The culture of medicine relies on a certain degree of support between colleagues. It is often viewed as a professional courtesy to assist colleagues whenever possible, but it is unclear just how far that courtesy extends. Clarifying the ethics of special treatment can help us to understand what is owed to colleagues in professional relationships.

    Principles of Resource Allocation

    Physician time and attention are scarce medical resources. They are finite, valuable, and affect clinical outcomes. In this section, I examine whether it is justified to provide more of these resources to certain patients by applying widely accepted frameworks for the ethical allocation of scarce medical resources. Many frameworks for allocating scarce medical resources rely on four sets of values[4]. These values are maximizing benefit, giving priority to the worst off, treating people equally, and promoting and rewarding social value. Some of these values are relevant to the issue of special treatment, while others are not. 

    First, the principle of utility suggests that resources should be allocated in a way that maximizes the benefits that may be obtained. However, this utilitarian principle is irrelevant to the question of special treatment. There is no reason to assume that the family members of physician colleagues would benefit any more or less from medical treatment than would the general population.

    Second, priority to the worst off suggests that benefits to those who are worse off should be given more moral weight. This prioritarian principle is important when, for instance, it would be more expensive to provide treatment to some populations even though they are disadvantaged in some way. However, family members of physician colleagues are likely no different in this regard than other patients are, so this principle does not apply.

    Third, the value of treating people equally suggests that all people have equal moral status and therefore have equal claims to the distribution of scarce medical resources. Special treatment runs counter to this principle. It asks us to give relative priority to some patients over others even though they all have equal moral standing. Therefore on its own, the value of equality does not support special treatment for some patients. 

    The fourth value is promoting and rewarding social usefulness. On this value, some people have greater claim to scarce resources based either on instrumental value (forward-looking) or on reciprocity (backward-looking). Instrumental value entails prioritizing certain individuals in order to advance important social values in the future. Reciprocity, on the other hand, implies that we should reward those who have contributed to valued societal goals in the past. Although reciprocity is a controversial way to allocate scarce medical resources, it is increasingly becoming accepted. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital staff were assigned higher priority for ventilators if they had cared for COVID-positive patients in the past. The value of reciprocity may be consistent with special treatment. Physician colleagues are engaged in the care of shared patients and help to ensure those patients have good outcomes. Thus, they may be owed special consideration as a result. Of note, this argument only applies to physicians who are colleagues at the same institution.  

    Equality and reciprocity are opposing values. Equality suggests that all patients should receive the same consideration, but reciprocity supports the claim that some patients are owed special regard. At the most fundamental level, these principles differ in whether they lend credence to any sort of partiality on the part of the treating clinician. Special treatment clearly requires some sort of partiality. What is the right amount of partiality to show to certain patients?

    Reasonable Partiality

    Partiality is the claim that it is “morally right to give a higher priority in one’s actions to those to whom we stand in certain sorts of relationship than to those to whom we stand in no relationship, all else being equal.”[5] [6] It is, in essence, a normative obligation to favor those with whom we are in close relationship. Many philosophers endorse this approach. For instance, Samuel Scheffler argues that interpersonal relationships generate moral reasons that are by nature stronger than and may supersede impartial or impersonal reasons.[7],[8] Others, such as Thomas Nagel and Peter Singer, disagree. They view partiality as merely the selfish concern with one’s own interests[9], and encourage us to view or responsibilities to distant others as equal in strength to those we owe to whom we are most close.[10]

    Partiality exists on a spectrum. It ranges from full impartiality towards all at one end, to the preferential treatment of some persons at the other. Many of our professional relationships depend to a certain degree on partiality, provided that it is applied in the right way. Too much partiality and we run the risk of nepotism; too little, and we fall into anomie.

    The practice of medicine clearly depends to a certain degree on partiality. Physicians have obligations of fidelity, truth-telling, confidentiality, etc., that they owe to their patients but not to the stranger.[11] These special moral obligations are owed precisely because physicians and patients enter a therapeutic relationship. It would be impossible for medicine to have a detached impersonality to it; without partiality, the field would be marked by an absence of trust. The doctor-patient relationship is imbued with the expectation of special concern.

    But can a physician be more partial to some of their patients over others? After all, that is what special treatment seems to require. The truth is that physicians already routinely show partiality to some patients in medical and non-medical ways. They make house calls[12], attend some patients’ life events and funerals[13], and go above and beyond for some patients in ways that would be impractical to do for all. These practices are consistent with the professional obligation to provide the standard of care; anything above that is supererogatory. Special treatment is merely another instance of supererogatory practice.

    Supererogatory medical practices are morally acceptable because they are consistent with reasonable partiality. This degree of partiality suggests that we can place the interests of some patients above the interests of others so long as it is reasonable to do so. What counts as reasonable? As Per Nortvedt has pointed out, physicians have a duty to help their own patients, but not at the cost of someone else’s welfare.[14] For example, the Tarasoff case[15] established that psychiatrists are legally liable if they do not disclose their own patient’s intent to harm another person. Physicians cannot privilege one patient if doing so would result in clear harms to another.

    Reasonable partiality is therefore only morally permissible if it does not directly harm or exploit another identifiable individual. These duties are negative constraints against claims to partiality. Reasonable partiality therefore suggests that it is ethically permissible for physicians to give relative priority to certain patients as long as doing so does not infringe upon the rights or the medical care of other patients.

    What sort of special treatment is justified?

    Physicians often deal with relative or absolute shortages of resources. It would be unethical to provide special treatment in the face of an absolute shortage of resources. For instance, it would be morally impermissible to admit a colleagues’ family member to the last available ICU bed solely based on a professional connection, if doing so would deprive another patient of needed treatment. For special treatment to be acceptable, it cannot result in harms to identifiable patients.

    However, it may be acceptable to provide special treatment when there is a relative shortage of resources. For instance, it may be morally permissible for a physician to spend additional time with a patient who is the family member of a colleague or obtain additional imaging for that patient, provided that no other patients’ medical interests are harmed by the delay. Similarly, it may be ethically acceptable to expedite hospital admission from the Emergency Department provided that all patients who need an inpatient bed will ultimately receive one. Reasonable partiality is therefore consistent with special treatment even when there are relative shortages of resources, provided that all patients receive an adequate level of care that is consistent with professional standards.

    Discussion

    Some may resist the use of partiality specifically because it favors those who are well-connected. It advantages those who are already well-acquainted with the medical system. Though this is the case, there are benefits to reasonable partiality. It assuages the worry of physician colleagues, supports physicians in personally meaningful ways, and may even prevent burnout by increasing physician well-being[16]. The significance of colleague-to-colleague support should not be underestimated.

    I recognize that this viewpoint may be provocative. My intention in addressing this challenging and controversial topic is to call attention to a practice that is already widespread yet has flown under the radar in most discussions of ethics. At worst, this viewpoint could be seen as tone-deaf. But at best, it could be seen as delineating the proper bounds of a habit that is already extensively practiced yet so poorly studied that we do not know its impact on patient care. I believe this topic deserves consideration, so that is a risk I am willing to take.

    Conclusions

    Special treatment of physician-colleagues family members is an ethically controversial area in medicine. This paper addresses the question of what types of support we can reasonably extend to those around us.  Physicians can provide care that is reasonably partial to their colleagues’ family members, if doing so does not impact the medical outcomes of other patients.


    References:

    [1] In this paper, I refer to the family members of physicians, but similar practices are likely to occur with regards to medical staff including nurses, physical therapists, or administrators who have family members who receive medical attention at the hospital at which they work.   

    [2] Morgan M. Matt Morgan: Treating a VIP patient BMJ 2020; 369 :m1973 doi:10.1136/bmj.m1973

    [3] Gross DA, Zyzanski SJ, Borawski EA, Cebul RD, Stange KC. Patient satisfaction with time spent with their physician. J Fam Pract. 1998 Aug;47(2):133-7. Erratum in: J Fam Pract 1998 Oct;47(4):261. PMID: 9722801.

    [4] Persad G, Wertheimer A, Emanuel EJ. Principles for allocation of scarce medical interventions. Lancet. 2009 Jan 31;373(9661):423-31. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60137-9. PMID: 19186274.

    [5] Almond B. Reasonable partiality in professional relationships. Ethical Theory Moral Pract. 2005 Apr;8(1-2):155-68. doi: 10.1007/s10677-005-3285-5. PMID: 16459402.

    [6] Blum, L., Against Deriving Particularity, B. Hooker and M. Little (eds.), 2000

    [7] Scheffler, S. (2010). Equality and tradition. Questions of value in moral and political theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    [8] Nortvedt, P. Needs and closeness—Defending a reasonable partiality in nursing care. Nurs Philos. 2019; 20:e12256.

    [9] Nagel, T., Equality and Partiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

    [10] Singer, P. (2002). One world. The ethics of globalisation. Yale: Yale University Press.

    [11]  Winston Chiong (2006) The Real Problem with Equipoise, The American Journal of Bioethics, 6:4, 37-47, DOI: 10.1080/15265160600755565

    [12] Rerucha CM, Salinas R Jr, Shook J, Duane M. House Calls. Am Fam Physician. 2020 Aug 15;102(4):211-220. PMID: 32803925.

    [13] Berman S. The Importance of Attending Patient Funerals. Pediatrics. 2018 Jul;142(1):e20173977. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-3977. Epub 2018 Jun 5. PMID: 29871890.

    [14] Nortvedt, P. (2001). Needs, closeness and responsibilities. An inquiry into some rival moral considerations in nursing care. Nursing Philosophy, 2(2), 112– 122.

    [15]  (Tarasoff v. the Regents of the University of California, 1976)

    [16] Wallace JE, Lemaire J. Physician well being and quality of patient care: an exploratory study of the missing link. Psychol Health Med. 2009 Oct;14(5):545-52. doi: 10.1080/13548500903012871. PMID: 19844833.

  • Rethinking Roles and Rules: An Ethical Analysis of the Response of Medical Education to Public Crises

    by Abraham Cheloff
    2020 Winning Essay
    Introduction

    In early 2020, a novel virus known as SARS-CoV-2, novel coronavirus 2019, and COVID-19 swept across the world at an alarming rate. As the spread of the virus increased, medical schools and hospitals started to act to protect trainees from the still unknown and mysterious illness. In mid-March of 2020, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) and Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) issued a statement that asked medical schools across the country to remove medical students from clerkships and other activities involving patient care for two weeks (1). The reasoning provided was that these two weeks would give hospitals time to preserve much needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical schools time to educate students regarding COVID-19. Now, this relatively short suspension turned into a much longer one, medical schools have had to make decisions regarding whether students will be allowed to work with patients as well as what medical education will look like during and in the aftermath of the pandemic. Since changes to medical education could have impacts on current and future patient safety, as well as trainee preparedness and safety, the possibilities deserve a full ethical analysis of its implications.

    Since there has not been a pandemic in the last hundred years, analyses of decisions made and the corresponding ethical considerations during pandemics are virtually nonexistent. There are, however, publications by ethicist and medical educators that describe a variety of global crises as well as the roles medical students have taken. Using the lens of medical student participation in disaster response during a variety of historical events, we will herein attempt to analyze the current response of medical education to the COVID-19 pandemic, as a disaster, including its effects on patient care and medical student training. Herein, I will outline some benefits and risks to medical student clinical participation in light of COVID- 19, and asses the question of student participation as a duty vs a choice. Then, I will review the historical participation of medical students in previous disasters through an ethical lens and do the same for current

    policies, practices, and activities enacted by medical schools in response to COVID-19. Furthermore, and finally, I will recommend policies for present and future implementation that are ethically justifiable and seek to reduce the negative effects on trainees and patients.

    The Benefits and Risks to Medical Student Participation during COVID-19

    Considering the vast destructive effects that disasters, including pandemics, can have, preventing and decreasing harm is considered an ethical responsibility (2). Although medical students are not yet physicians, they have a multitude of skills that could prove effective in meeting these goals. Studies have shown that medical students as a group are willing to respond in the event of a disaster, with 59-94% willing to participate in the event of an infectious epidemic (3, 4). In addition to their eagerness to be involved and engaged, medical students are often excited to learn and execute procedures, such as placing IV lines, suturing, and performing physical exams that are tedious to seasoned staff (5). Allowing these students to perform these tasks allow the more experienced staff time to complete more advanced activities during the pandemic. Medical students, who may have more time to devote to individual patients than their attending or resident counterparts, can also increase patient comfort and decrease anxiety during a pandemic. Finally, since medical students in the United States and across the world may feel they lack the preparedness to necessary participate in disasters (3, 4, 6), deploying medical students to participate in the pandemic response would only serve to enrich their education and better prepare students for the next disaster.

    While there are multiple risks to both patient safety and medical students themselves that must be considered whenever students are deployed, it is especially important to do so during the high-risk and high-stress hospital environment of a pandemic. Since medical students often do not feel prepared to participate in disaster response (3, 4, 6), their lack of education will put additional work on supervising faculty to both train students to do whatever roles they take on as well as ensure patients are not harmed by the process. With the growing complexity of medical care and increased burden on hospital operations during a pandemic, increasing the need for supervision of medical students would decrease the previously

    stated benefits of freeing staff time for other activities. Moreover, medical students’ the lack of education and experience may lead to an increased risk of exposure and illness. One study shows a severe lack of proper PPE and infection control education in medical schools throughout the world , with over 50% of students failing to report injuries and exposures (7). This study further underscores the need for additional education for medical students in environments where infection control is of the upmost importance.

    The risks to a medical student’s mental health during a disaster is another concern that must also be considered. Participation in disaster relief efforts has showed some positive effects on medical student mental health. In a study performed after the March 2011 “triple disaster” in Japan consisting of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident, individuals who volunteered showed increased growth, particularly in “personal strength”, as well as an increased desire to be a physician (8). Furthermore, this as well as other studies show that those who volunteered were no more or less likely to report distress than those who did not, no matter how long they volunteered for (8, 9). Results also indicate that for those who did experience an adverse emotional response, the effects were greatest in students who identified as female, or who participated in activities that were intense or required low supervision (9, 10). The researchers acknowledged that the effect on female participants was associated with a lack of confidence in their abilities, and that societal attitudes may be a factor contributing to this differential. Further harms may be incurred since medical students often do not seek appropriate care for either physical and mental health conditions since the fear the lack of confidentiality at student health centers as well as the possible retaliation against their academic status in medical school (11).

    In addition to the risks on medical students for participation during disasters, there are also potential risks to patients that should be acknowledged. In the normal course of care, patients are informed when medical students are a part of their care, though some may not be aware of how a medical student differs from other members of the care team. Incorrectly being introduced as “doctor” by other members of the care team may lend to this confusion (12). However, medical students also play a part of this lack of consent. One study showed that as students advance in their clinical years, they are less likely to introduce themselves as medical students. This lack of consent was found to be especially prevalent in

    patients requiring anesthesia, since these patients placed an increased importance on understanding medical student involvement as compared to non-anesthetized patients (13). The increasing number of patients who will be sedated and intubated during the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the sudden increase in responsibility of medical students and lack of supervision, may lead to a decrease in understanding by patients of whom on their team is a medical student and what qualifications that students holds or has completed.

    Risks to patients can be further stratified, and this stratification is not necessarily the same across patient identity. In the setting of a pandemic, medical students will interact with a variety of patients that may be difficult or novel, and these patients may include distressed children or patients with poorly treated mental illness (14). A study on students being trained in advanced trauma life support indicated that when provided an unfamiliar scenario, such as one that involves a pregnant woman or child, medical students were easily distracted (15). While more research must be done and since these results cannot be generalized, the high-pressure situation of a pandemic could exacerbate many of the above-mentioned risks, and thus must be taken into account when determining the types of medical student participation throughout the pandemic.

    After weighing these benefits and risks, the AAMC released a statement intended to guide medical schools on the types of direct patient care that medical students should be allowed to participate in. The AAMC reaffirms that medical students must be appropriately trained and supervised in whatever activities they participate (16). They further emphasize that medical student participation should occur only when there is a critical need due to a shortage of healthcare workers. The AAMC is cognizant of many of the risks of medical student involvement, including increased exposure, increased PPE use, and increased need for students to receive COVID-19 testing, which is currently limited. This analysis requires that the benefits outweigh the risks before medical students can be involved in direct patient care.

    Medical Student Participation: A Duty or a Choice

    To better understand the choices that medical education will need to make for its students amidst the pandemic, the first, overarching question to be considered is whether medical student participation during the pandemic should be mandatory or on a volunteer basis. While many medical students have shown an interest in participating in the response to disasters, including pandemics, the number is not 100% (3, 4). While this eagerness to serve should be lauded and appreciated, it must not be misconstrued with a duty to act when one does not reasonably exist. It has long been held that physicians, as professionals, hold a duty to act because of their responsibility to society. Ethicists argue that, even when risks to the physician are present, their unique ability to heal supersedes these risks to themselves (17, 18). From this, it can be assumed that the duty to heal for a medical student should be determined by their individual abilities as well as the ways in which they would be able to assist during the pandemic. A thoughtful ethical analysis leads to two possible positions regarding the duty of a medical student. In one position, medical students were seen as either not having the same abilities as physicians or as existing on a spectrum between lay-people and physicians. In either case, medical students could not have the same duties as physicians if they did not have the same abilities, though one could argue that they should practice up to their current abilities just as physicians are required to. According to the second view, which was based on philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson’s analysis of obligation, it is mandatory that everyone do what they can to avoid moral indecency. In this case, which may provide the stronger argument, medical students have a duty to act up to their current abilities, and to do otherwise would be indecent when the state of the world requires their assistance (5, 19).

    There are also a number of legal issues that must be considered before medical students can be given clearance to participate. Since Hurricane Katrina, legal protections have been passed that protect health care professionals who volunteer in the face of disaster, so long as they are licensed (20). While these legal protections may not apply to medical students, they, as unlicensed individuals, may be covered by Good Samaritan laws, which are designed to protect those who provide medical care to those who would not ordinarily receive it (21). At the same time, identifying medical students as Good Samaritans would automatically confer a lack of duty, as Good Samaritan legislation was enacted to encourage health

    care works to treat in an emergency setting where they have no duty to act. Furthermore, once any assistance is offered, the medical student would be duty bound to remain with the patient until they could transfer care to someone of higher training and would otherwise have abandoned the patient (21). At the same time Good Samaritan laws only apply to emergencies when a patient is unable to otherwise consent. Since consent is of the utmost importance during a disaster, Good Samaritan laws do not and could not apply in these cases, leaving medical students without appropriate legal protections.

    We must also consider whether the medical education system, including medical schools and hospitals, have the legal duty to protect medical students throughout their educational experience and particularly during a disaster. Being averse to legal action, schools forego a supposed student-duty-to-act in order to protect themselves and their assets. During the SARS epidemic of 2002, medical schools in Asia were closed after an incidental exposure left students ill (22). From a legal standpoint, as well as an ethical one, student participation can be prioritized only when their risks are minimized. There are those who would argue that medical students, given their lack of knowledge, should have priority for PPE, vaccines, and other hazard-reducing measures in the interest of decreasing the risks associated with their lack of experience (5, 19). During a pandemic, however, this can be complicated. Prioritizing masks for medical students will take away from the already sparse supplies that are needed for frontline workers. If there is a shortage of supplies, it would be unreasonable to put medical students in the position of choosing between their profession and health. While the concept of a duty to act for medical students is altruistic and may even be reported by some medical students as a duty they feel they must fulfill, its implementation in the COVID-19 pandemic would create legal concerns for medical schools.

    Additionally, requirements such as a priority for facemasks and vaccines for medical students would create a moral sacrifice on the part of frontline workers that would achieve moral indecency even by Thompson’s standards. Thus, medical student participation must be on a volunteer basis.

    The AAMC reaches a similar conclusion but on a seemingly different ethical basis. AAMC guidelines conclude that medical student participation should be voluntary. They further state that this decision must be consistently conveyed in clear messaging to students and that, if direct patient care is

    part of required clerkship experience, online opportunities should be made available in their stead (16). This requirement stems from the recognition that medical students, whether hoping to impress supervising physicians or out of misguided morals, may participate in direct patient care against their own better judgement. Understanding that medical students are vulnerable to this type of coercion at any time in their education (23), but are especially vulnerable when attendings and others who are supervising trainees are working in situations that cause intense stress will help medical schools and other institutions see the need for a voluntary mechanism of participation.

    An Excerpt of Medical Student Participation in Past Disaster Responses

    The response of both the medical system as well as medical education to disasters has changed drastically over time and can certainly be influenced by a number of factors such as the type and intensity of the disaster as well as the resources available. By analyzing the adaptations that have been made during past disasters, as well as their perhaps unintended consequences, we can better understand the implications of current changes being made to medical education.

    During discussions around COVID-19 mortality concerns, the current pandemic is often compared to Pandemic Influenza. Between 1918-1920, a deadly outbreak of influenza spread across the globe, infecting over a third of the world population and ending the lives of approximately 50 million individuals (24). While current mortality has not reached this magnitude, the Pandemic Influenza of 1918- 1920 does represent a time when a pandemic led to mass changes in medical educations. Dr. Isaac Starr, a medical student in 1918, recalls medical students being put on the front lines. While fourth year medical students took on the role of interns, third year medical students, who would have been in their core clinical year, supported the effort as nurses (25), with only one trained nurse available for consultation throughout the day. During this time medical students were put in an ethically precarious position, filling roles that they were not necessarily trained for and had little to no supervision. Such situations existed in regular hospitals as well as to makeshift hospitals at schools, private homes and other areas that were staffed by medical students (26). The dangers of lack of supervision, including lack of patient consent

    and harm to student mental health were of the utmost concern in 1918 and continue to be today. In 2005, following an earthquake that struck Pakistan and the surrounding areas, medical students were sent unsupervised to treat patients because “elderly and physically weak senior doctors were not able to undertake the long hike” (27). What resulted, as may have been expected, was a group of students thrust into emotional turmoil at the sight of people trapped under semi-collapsed buildings. Without the proper training, students rushed to pull people away without concern for the instability of the buildings, leading to student injury as buildings continued to collapse. These students, instead of assisting, became a source of liability to other rescuers. These experiences not only reinforce the need for proper supervision, but also emphasize the need to for medical students to receive the proper education in order to ensure that they are prepared for the new challenges encountered during a disaster.

    Following the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001, many medical students in New York volunteered to assist with the influx of patients. In one role, medical students accompanied physicians to the World Trade Center in order to provide first aid. Even though these medical students were receiving the proper supervision by physicians, the project was dismantled since it was determined that sending teams to the site posed a risk to staff and students and that too great relative to the minor first aid that they rendered (28). Thus, even though these students were receiving the appropriate supervision, student safety was balanced with the benefits that those students could provide. Away from danger, students continued to support hospital operations by acting as “runners” in the hospital to help ensure the passage of information when telephones were overloaded. It was determined that this role held a better balance of risks and benefits. It is important to note that students in this role were not unilaterally removed from danger due to their roles as medical students, but rather considered as members of the healthcare team that could provide in a time of need.

    COVID-19: Medical Student Participation in the Present

    With medical students at all stages of clinical education having their education suspended or moved online, many are left wondering what impact this has on their graduation status and future training as a physician. When considering the risk to benefit ratio in whether students should be allowed to participate clinically at this time, it would be prudent to remember that medical students serve multiple roles in the hospital, sometimes as learners and other times as clinicians. The benefit to medical education does not justify the risks medical students pose, including acting as fomites, consuming much needed PPE, and requiring the supervision of physicians who have many other obligations at this time (29). On the other hand, by the end or even the middle of the core clinical year, medical students are prepared to support a variety of operations including interviewing patients, communicating with families and other members of the care team, and writing notes. While medical student involvement in patient care can increase the work of attendings due to needed supervision, it should be balanced against the burden on the healthcare team that students are able to alleviate. Furthermore, preventing students from fulfilling their duties to patients and participating in the healthcare team may decrease their cohesion with the medical profession and prevent them from developing attributes of core professional such as service and altruism (29). To prevent medical students who want to volunteer simply due to their role as a trainee should be seen as unethical. Rather, in order to avoid moral indecency, we should carefully weigh the benefit each specific student can bring given their level of training to the level of supervision required for their activities.

    While medical students need to participate in the required clinical education, the benefits that learners can bring as clinicians must be balanced against their ability to complete their work safely. Given the shortages of PPE experienced across the country (30), a major consideration in deploying medical students back to the wards is whether there is enough PPE to support these students, and whether this use would detract from hospital needs. While this consideration may mean that the action to suspend medical student involvement in patient care is the best we can do within our current means, it does not mean that we are acting in an ethical manner. Ethical responsibilities include acting to prevent or decrease the effect of disasters before they occur (31). In the aftermath of disasters, educators have not only recognized the need for additional disaster management education and preparedness plans in medical schools but also the

    development of innovative curricula to meet the educational need (32-34). Unfortunately, medical school curricula nationwide have not responded to this need. With this lack of disaster medical education, our medical students as well as our interns are less prepared to participate in disasters when they occur (35).

    Despite the negligent or sluggish response by multiple actors to support hospitals during a disaster, medical students themselves have discovered new and innovative ways to respond within their means. Harvard Medical School students quickly mobilized to support patients, healthcare workers, and the general community during this uncertain time. The students are split into four main tasks, including creating education resources for healthcare workers, education resources for the public – which has become especially important given the conspiracy theories that have been circulating – and providing support for health care workers and vulnerable populations (36). Given the circumstances, the need for safety, and the lack of preparedness by hospitals, medical schools, and the government, these medical students and many others across the country found a way to continue to support their communities, on a completely volunteer basis, despite the roadblocks and risks in their way. During what is certainly an increasing difficult and stressful time these self-less acts not only represent the level of ethical behavior we should strive for but also both validate and illustrate that the future is in extremely capable hands.

    Conclusion: Recommendations for the Future

    Amidst any type of disaster, there is bound to be conflicts between what one hopes to achieve and what is realistically possible. This is true for the COVID-19 pandemic as well. As much as many medical students would love nothing more than to return to the clerkships and continue to support their patients and hospitals, their safety, and the safety of those around them, must come first. While medical students have discovered ways to remain involved despite both the lack of training and availability of PPE, medical schools, hospitals, governments, and all other parties must be urged to better prepare for the next disaster, whatever it may be. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, MD, PhD, Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, recognizes the transformation ahead. He writes, “The reconfiguration of medical education seems inevitable fueled by online educational technology and

    the need to transform clinical training” (37). While transformations can be painful, they are required to ensure that next time, medical students are in the position to participate to the fullest of their abilities while mitigating as many of the risks as possible. Only then, says Thompson, would moral decency be achieved.

     

    References:

    1. American Association of Medical Colleges. Guidance on Medical Students’ Clinical Participation: Effective Immediately 2020 March 17, 2020]; Available from: https://www.aamc.org/system/files/2020- 03/Guidance%20on%20Student%20Clinical%20Participation%203.17.20%20Final.pdf.
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