Who should receive life support during a public health emergency? Using ethical principles to improve allocation decisions

Ann Intern Med. 2009 Jan 20;150(2):132-8. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-150-2-200901200-00011.


A public health emergency, such as an influenza pandemic, will lead to shortages of mechanical ventilators, critical care beds, and other potentially life-saving treatments. Difficult decisions about who will and will not receive these scarce resources will have to be made. Existing recommendations reflect a narrow utilitarian perspective, in which allocation decisions are based primarily on patients' chances of survival to hospital discharge. Certain patient groups, such as the elderly and those with functional impairment, are denied access to potentially life-saving treatments on the basis of additional allocation criteria. We analyze the ethical principles that could guide allocation and propose an allocation strategy that incorporates and balances multiple morally relevant considerations, including saving the most lives, maximizing the number of "life-years" saved, and prioritizing patients who have had the least chance to live through life's stages. We also argue that these principles are relevant to all patients and therefore should be applied to all patients, rather than selectively to the elderly, those with functional impairment, and those with certain chronic conditions. We discuss strategies to engage the public in setting the priorities that will guide allocation of scarce life-sustaining treatments during a public health emergency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Emergencies*
  • Health Care Rationing / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Influenza, Human / therapy
  • Public Health*
  • Social Values
  • Value of Life
  • Ventilators, Mechanical / supply & distribution