Objective: Recent experiences in the United States with unprecedented terrorist attacks (9/11) and a devastating natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) have demonstrated that the medical care of mass casualties during such disasters poses ethical problems not normally experienced in civilian health care. It is important to 1) identify the unique ethical challenges facing physicians who feel an obligation to care for victims of such disasters and 2) develop a national consensus on ethical guidelines as a resource for ethical decision making in medical disaster relief.
Study design: A survey of pertinent literature was performed to assess experience and opinions on the condition of medical care in terrorist attacks and natural disasters, the ethical challenges of disaster medical care, and the professional responsibilities and responsiveness in disasters.
Conclusions: It is necessary to develop a national consensus on the ethical guidelines for physicians who care for patients, victims, and casualties of disasters, and to formulate a virtue-based, yet practical, ethical approach to medical care under such extreme conditions. An educational curriculum for medical students, residents, and practicing physicians is required to best prepare all physicians who might be called upon, in the future, to triage patients, allocate resources, and make difficult decisions about treatment priorities and comfort care. It is not appropriate to address these questions at the time of the disaster, but rather in advance, as part of the ethics education of the medical profession. Important issues for resolution include inpatient and casualty triage and prioritization, medical liability, altered standards of care, justice and equity, informed consent and patient autonomy, expanding scope of practice in disaster medicine, and the moral and ethical responsibilities of physicians to care for disaster victims.