Bioethics Blogs

Is it right to compel hospital staff to care for patients with Ebola?

Is it right for hospitals to compel their staff to care for patients with Ebola?

In response to the Ebola epidemic in Africa, hospitals here are preparing for the low-probability but high-risk prospect of caring for patients with Ebola. There are at least two different approaches hospitals are taking. Some hospitals are assembling a team of personnel who volunteer to care for any patients with Ebola. Other hospitals are requiring personnel in the affected departments (primarily the emergency department and the intensive care unit) to care for any potential Ebola patient who presents to them, some even threatening termination of employment if a staff member refuses to treat a patient with Ebola.

Are both of these approaches acceptable, or is one more ethically correct? In the case of individual physicians (as opposed to hospital staff), the answer seems clear to me. Writing as a physician, it doesn’t matter whether or not the hospital is compelling me; if my patient has Ebola, and I am in the position to be caring for that patient, it is my duty as a physician to take care of him or her (whilst taking every reasonable precaution to prevent contracting the disease myself) and not defer to another physician, whether or not that other physician has volunteered to take the risk upon him- or herself. I have a duty to not abandon my patient. I am less clear when it comes to other hospital staff; I am not conversant enough with nursing ethics (and the ethical obligations of the other caregivers in the team that must take part in caring for these critically ill patients) to say whether there exists for them the same level and sphere of individual duty towards particular patients that exists in the patient-physician relationship.

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.