A consequentialist argument for considering age in triage decisions during the coronavirus pandemic

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Department or Administrative Unit

Philosophy and Religious Studies

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Most ethics guidelines for distributing scarce medical resources during the coronavirus pandemic seek to save the most lives and the most life‐years. A patient’s prognosis is determined using a SOFA or MSOFA score to measure likelihood of survival to discharge, as well as a consideration of relevant comorbidities and their effects on likelihood of survival up to one or five years. Although some guidelines use age as a tiebreaker when two patients’ prognoses are identical, others refuse to consider age for fear of discriminating against the elderly. In this paper, I argue that age is directly relevant for maximizing health benefits, so current ethics guidelines are wrongly excluding or deemphasizing life‐stage in their triage algorithms. Research on COVID‐19 has shown that age is a risk factor in adverse outcomes, independent of comorbidities. And limiting a consideration of life‐years to only one or five years past discharge does not maximize health benefits. Therefore, based on their own stated values, triage algorithms for coronavirus patients ought to include life‐stage as a primary consideration, along with the SOFA score and comorbidities, rather than excluding it or using it merely as a tiebreaker. This is not discriminatory because patients ought to have equal opportunity to experience life‐stages. The equitable enforcement of that right justifies unequal treatment based on age in cases when there is a scarcity of life‐saving resources. A consideration of life‐stage would thus allow healthcare workers to responsibly steward public resources in order to maximize lives and life‐years saved.


This article was originally published in Bioethics. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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