The Legal & Ethical Challenges Surrounding Treating COVID-19 Patients

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The consequences of COVID-19 are multifaceted and varied. They are beyond the deaths and illness of the virus, it has economic and legal ramifications that are still unclear. When it comes to treating this virus, the legal and ethical challenges aren’t simple or easy to solve. While doctors are responsible for people’s lives, insufficient resources force them to make difficult decisions that can have life-changing consequences. It is a balance that needs to be struck, but it’s very difficult to qualify. The ethics are tough and the legal challenges are inconsistent. 

Inadequate Resources

It is no secret that the medical resources needed to treat COVID-19 patients are inadequate. Around the world there aren’t enough beds and ventilators. Hospitals are impacted and treatment is decided based on the greatest effect on the largest number of people. This leads to tricky questions. Should someone who is probably not going to make it receive treatment that could save someone else’s life? Who should get the beds and ventilators? Who decides these things?

Tough Decisions for Doctors

Doctors are forced to make these difficult decisions every day. While they are responsible for the well-being of their patients, doctors can’t be blamed for the deadliness of the virus. It isn’t their fault that there aren’t enough beds and medical equipment for everybody. Not only does this lead to tough ethical decisions for medical personnel, but it can also lead to unnecessary blame and legal action.

Medical Negligence

When someone isn’t treated the way they or their family members believe they should have been treated, they may want to open a case against a particular doctor or medical facility. The only way to have a valid case is to prove medical negligence. This is a difficult thing to do. A reputable medical body has to deem the actions of the doctor negligent. 

According to health care law specialist David Lock QC argued that it would be “difficult to establish that doctors have acted negligently during this pandemic.” He added that their errors would have to be blatant and egregious to have a legitimate case. 

Additionally, a representative of the Irish personal injury law firm McGinley Solicitors recently stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced legal practitioners to adapt to this changing world in the best interests of their clients. There needs to be a balance between protecting the interests of health care claims and the public health concerns to limit the spread and deadliness of the COVID-19 virus. While this balance is precarious, it is vital to think about those on the frontlines who are doing their best to mitigate the pandemic. 

Protecting Doctors

While no one is perfect and doctors are humans like everyone else, protecting them against unfounded claims is pivotal. There are few arguments that doctors could be called negligent when making tough decisions on who gets treated, who gets admitted, and how best to go forward. There are a lot of claims against medical personnel and as the pandemic continues, there will be more on the horizon. 

For example, in a study that surveyed 2400 members of the Medical Protection Society (MPS) 36 percent of them said they are worried about the prospect of an investigation relating to a decision they made to withdraw or withhold life-prolonging treatment due to the capacity and resource limitations.

Furthermore, 61 percent of MPS members said that they are concerned about an investigation to do with a difficult decision they made under pressure. The question is, how much are these people responsible for the deadly nature of the virus? They can’t always stop transmissions, sickness, and death. Doctors can only be expected to do their best, even if their best isn’t good enough. 

There are no easy solutions to these tough legal and ethical questions surrounding treating patients who have COVID-19. Yet it is important to continue these conversations so that people who are suffering from the virus can get the help they need and so that doctors can avoid unnecessary blame that can affect their conscience and career. With no good way to handle this, reasonable conversation about hard topics is necessary. Reason and compassion are both necessary to make it through this together. 

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