UW Bioethics Group Assists State Officials in Making Decisions About Ventilator Allocation

Apr 8, 2020 | Coronavirus, COVID-19, Discrimination, Shortage, Supplies, University of Wisconsin, Ventilator

UW Bioethics Group Assists State Officials in Making Decisions About Ventilator Allocation

With COVID-19 cases in the state of Wisconsin steadily climbing, the University of Wisconsin’s Bioethics group, run by Dr. Norman Fost, is helping state officials dictate who will have priority ventilator access in preparation for the possibility of shortages throughout hospitals. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, there are currently 2,440 confirmed cases of the virus in the state as of Monday. The number has nearly doubled from last Monday, where the number of cases stood at 1,221.

Dr. Fost of Pediatrics and Bioethics at UW is leading the university’s bioethics group, in which members participate in research and education of stem cell research, medical education, health disparities and public health ethics, among other topics, according to UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health website.

Equipment Shortages

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, as of Monday morning, hospitals had a supply of about 1,215 ventilators to use for COVID-19 patients. Gov. Tony Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal that he is looking to purchase 10,000 more, but due to the high demand for these machines across the country, it is unknown when that supply will be available for use. 

Due to this shortage, decisions about who receives ventilators will have to be made, Fost said.

“Traditionally, the ethics of medicine is, we always do everything we can for every patient in front of us,” Fost said to the Wisconsin State Journal. “In an allocation crisis like this, this can no longer be the rule.”

Fost said that a first-come-first-serve approach to supplying ventilators is not efficient because some patients may be more likely to survive without one than others, and this likelihood is unclear when patients first arrive for treatment. 

The Potential of Discrimination

Instead, Fost said people should be screened based on chances of survival, though, Fost said this could produce discrimination against groups of people who are disadvantaged.

“A ‘fair innings’ principle — borrowed from baseball, where each team gets to bat in the ninth inning — also favors the young,” the Wisconsin State Journal wrote. “A younger person hasn’t had as many ‘at bats’ at life as an older person, and should get another chance.”

Last week, the Survival Coalition of the Wisconsin Disability Coalitions wrote a letter to Evers asking for the state not to neglect the equity of people with disabilities. 

The letter, written by Survival co-Chairs Beth Swedeen, Kristin Kerschensteiner and Lisa Pugh, raised concerns over the Wisconsin health care system’s implemented protocol for dealing with decisions like the distribution of ventilators. The letter argues that biases within the system should not play a role in life or death decisions.

“The State of Wisconsin must be a leader in establishing guidelines that prevent tragedy for Wisconsinites with disabilities and their families,” the letter said.

Call to Action: Choices like this are having to be made all over the country right now, with the U.S. having more cases of COVID-19 than any other country. For updates and news, sign up for our Daily Newletter.


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