Bioethics Blogs

Do Doctors Have a Duty to Treat Patients With Ebola?

[Huffington Post] Now that two nurses treating Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan have themselves been diagnosed with the disease, it is time to ask: Do doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals have a duty to treat patients? What of the unsung healthcare “workers” — hazmat teams, EMTs, transporters who wheel stretchers, lab techs who test urine and blood, or the valet who escorts a vomiting person to the ER door?

It feels irreverent to ask this while across West Africa altruistic people are risking death each day to provide care. Sheik Umar Khan, Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor, died this July at age 39 after treating over 100 patients. He joins a growing number of physicians, nurses, and workers who have given their lives since the first outbreak in 1976.

The “duty” question dates back many years ago. In 1982 and 1983, when no one knew much about a “gay plague” other than that it was deadly, the right professional specialists stepped up to treat patients. Infectious disease specialists, including my colleague Dr. Roy Steigbigel, Professor of Infectious Disease at Stony Brook Hospital, affirmed their duty and worked on the AIDS ward, together with well-trained volunteer nurses. When in early 1984 the anxiety subsided, AIDS patients came to be treated by all professionals as needed.

Even earlier, during the Civil War, the Sisters of Mercy were the ones who stepped forward to provide comfort to those stricken with Yellow Fever, not the doctors. Later, in the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1890s, Army physician Walter Reed braved the contagion in Cuba during the Spanish American War and proved the “mosquito hypothesis,” which led to the disease’s eradication.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.