Staffing crisis capacity: a different approach to healthcare resource allocation for a different type of scarce resource

J Med Ethics. 2022 Jul 1;medethics-2022-108262. doi: 10.1136/jme-2022-108262. Online ahead of print.


Severe staffing shortages have emerged as a prominent threat to maintaining usual standards of care during the COVID-2019 pandemic. In dire settings of crisis capacity, healthcare systems assume the ethical duty to maximise aggregate population-level benefit of existing resources. To this end, existing plans for rationing mechanical ventilators and intensive care unit beds in crisis capacity focus on selecting individual patients who are most likely to survive and prioritising these patients to receive scarce resources. However, staffing capacity is conceptually different from availability of these types of discrete resources, and the existing strategy of identifying and prioritising patients with the best prognosis cannot be readily adapted to fit this real-world scenario. We propose that two alternative approaches to staffing resource allocation offer a better conceptual fit: (1) prioritise the worst off: restrict access to acute care services and hospital admission for patients at relatively low clinical risk and (2) prioritise staff interventions with high near-term value: universally restrict selected interventions and treatments that require substantial staff time and/or energy but offer minimal near-term patient benefit. These strategies-while potentially resulting in care that deviates from usual standards-support the goal of maximising the aggregate benefit of scarce resources in crisis capacity settings triggered by staffing shortages. This ethical framework offers a foundation to support institutional leaders in developing operationalisable crisis capacity policies that promote fairness and support healthcare workers.

Keywords: COVID-19; policy; resource allocation.