Importance: The COVID-19 pandemic prompted health care institutions worldwide to develop plans for allocation of scarce resources in crisis capacity settings. These plans frequently rely on rapid deployment of institutional triage teams that would be responsible for prioritizing patients to receive scarce resources; however, little is known about how these teams function or how to support team members participating in this unique task.
Objective: To identify themes illuminating triage team members' perspectives and experiences pertaining to the triage process.
Design, setting, and participants: This qualitative study was conducted using inductive thematic analysis of observations of Washington state triage team simulations and semistructured interviews with participants during the COVID-19 pandemic from December 2020 to February 2021. Participants included clinician and ethicist triage team members. Data were analyzed from December 2020 through November 2021.
Main outcomes and measures: Emergent themes describing the triage process and experience of triage team members.
Results: Among 41 triage team members (mean [SD] age, 50.3 [11.4] years; 21 [51.2%] women) who participated in 12 simulations and 21 follow-up interviews, there were 5 Asian individuals (12.2%) and 35 White individuals (85.4%); most participants worked in urban hospital settings (32 individuals [78.0%]). Three interrelated themes emerged from qualitative analysis: (1) understanding the broader approach to resource allocation: participants strove to understand operational and ethical foundations of the triage process, which was necessary to appreciate their team's specific role; (2) contending with uncertainty: team members could find it difficult or feel irresponsible making consequential decisions based on limited clinical and contextual patient information, and they grappled with ethically ambiguous features of individual cases and of the triage process as a whole; and (3) transforming mindset: participants struggled to disentangle narrow determinations about patients' likelihood of survival to discharge from implicit biases and other ethically relevant factors, such as quality of life. They cited the team's open deliberative process, as well as practice and personal experience with triage as important in helping to reshape their usual cognitive approach to align with this unique task.
Conclusions and relevance: This study found that there were challenges in adapting clinical intuition and training to a distinctive role in the process of scarce resource allocation. These findings suggest that clinical experience, education in ethical and operational foundations of triage, and experiential training, such as triage simulations, may help prepare clinicians for this difficult role.