Bioethics Blogs

Responding to Ebola: Health Care Professionals’ Obligations to Provide Care

As health care institutions in the United States prepare for Ebola patients, many have adopted the policy that those providing hands-on care should come from a pool of volunteers. Given the mixed history of health care providers’ willingness to care for patients during epidemics and pandemics, and the need for additional training in personal protective equipment for Ebola, this may be the most pragmatic response. However, worries about the risk of transmission of the virus to those coming in contact with infectious bodily fluids may lead to insufficient personnel coming forward, putting hospitals in a position to require some professionals, including doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists, to care for Ebola-infected patients.

Many academic medical centers have formulated policies about who might be required to participate in the care of Ebola patients and who might be exempt. In many centers, medical and nursing students have heard that they will not provide care to Ebola patients. In some centers, other trainees, such as residents and fellows, have also been excluded. 

These policies raise two important questions. First, what is the obligation of health care professionals to assume personal risk? When we look at what history shows, we find the original American Medical Association Code of Ethics, written in 1847, stated “. . . it is their duty to face the danger, and to continue their labours for the alleviation of the suffering, even at the jeopardy of their own lives.” Interestingly, this section was removed in the 1960s when the Surgeon General declared the threat of infectious diseases to be a problem of the past.

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.