Contextualizing Ethics: Ventilators, H1N1 and Marginalized Populations
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If the H1N1 pandemic worsens, there may not be enough ventilated beds to care for all persons with respiratory failure. To date, researchers who explicitly discuss the ethics of intensive care unit admission and the allocation of ventilators during an influenza pandemic have based criteria predominantly on the principles of utility and efficiency, that is, promoting actions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. However, haphazardly applying utility and efficiency potentially disadvantages marginalized populations who might be at increased risk of severe reactions to H1N1. In Canada, Aboriginals represent 3% of Canadians, yet 11% of H1N1 cases requiring hospitalization involve Aboriginal persons. Aboriginal persons suffer from high rates of obesity due to socio-economic inequalities. Obesity is also a risk factor for severe H1N1 reactions. Yet, since obesity is found to increase the duration of stay in ventilated beds and a long stay is not considered an optimal use of ventilators, applying the principles of utility and efficiency may magnify existing social inequalities. Although promoting utility and efficiency is important, other ethical principles, such as equity and need, require thoughtful consideration and implementation. Furthermore, since public resources are being used to address a public health hazard, the viewpoints of the public, and specifically stakeholders who will be disproportionately affected, should inform decision-makers. Finally, giving attention to the needs and rights of marginalized populations means that ventilators should not be allocated based on criteria that exacerbate the social injustices faced by these groups of people.
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