There is a concern that as a result of COVID-19 there will be a shortage of ventilators for patients requiring respiratory support. This concern has resulted in significant debate about whether it is appropriate to withdraw ventilation from one patient in order to provide it to another patient who may benefit more. The current advice available to doctors appears to be inconsistent, with some suggesting withdrawal of treatment is more serious than withholding, while others suggest that this distinction should not be made. We argue that there is no ethically relevant difference between withdrawing and withholding treatment and that suggesting otherwise may have problematic consequences. If doctors are discouraged from withdrawing treatment, concern about a future shortage may make them reluctant to provide ventilation to patients who are unlikely to have a successful outcome. This may result in underutilisation of available resources. A national policy is urgently required to provide doctors with guidance about how patients should be prioritised to ensure the maximum benefit is derived from limited resources.
In 2019, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic) came into force. Thereupon, Victoria became the first State in Australia to enact such a law since the Commonwealth of Australia overturned Northern Territory legislation in 1997. Because of the difficulties in the introduction of Victorian law, it is extremely conservative, with many safeguards. There are significant limitations to this law which will result in significant ethical difficulties for medical practitioners and their patients. Four problematic areas of the law are discussed: the prohibition on health practitioners introducing the subject, introduction of the subject of voluntary assisted dying to patients; difficulties in obtaining access to treatment in certain populations in Victoria; the arbitrary minimum age of 18 to be able to access voluntary assisted dying; and the difficulties for patients and practitioners in evaluating the capacity of patients with mental illness and cognitive difficulties. Practical solutions to these difficulties will be proffered and discussed.
Courts in England and Wales, Australia, and New Zealand have insisted the question of when it is acceptable to withdraw or withhold life-sustaining medical treatment from a child must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Over the last 40 years a number of cases have considered whether treatment is objectively in the child's best interests. This article seeks to identify whether there are factors identified and weighed in a consistent manner across cases. Thirty cases involving decisions about the provision of life-sustaining medical treatment to children three years old or younger were identified. Judges regularly refer to the need to weigh benefits and burdens and these factors were identified and assigned scores. Eight key factors were identified, and a scoring range was assigned to each. The factors focus on the condition and position of the child and the burdens of invasive medical treatment. The review demonstrates there are factors consistently identified and despite criticisms of the indeterminacy of the best interests test, there may be a broadly consistent approach to decision-making. Cognitive capacity and unavoidably imminent death appear to be the two most influential factors in determining whether life-sustaining treatment should be provided.
BACKGROUND: Decisions about withdrawal of life support for infants have given rise to legal battles between physicians and parents creating intense media attention. It is unclear how we should evaluate when life is no longer worth living for an infant. Public attitudes towards treatment withdrawal and the role of parents in situations of disagreement have not previously been assessed.
METHODS: An online survey was conducted with a sample of the UK public to assess public views about the benefit of life in hypothetical cases similar to real cases heard by the UK courts (eg, Charlie Gard, Alfie Evans). We then evaluated these public views in comparison with existing ethical frameworks for decision-making.
RESULTS: One hundred and thirty participants completed the survey. The majority (94%) agreed that an infant's life may have no benefit when well-being falls below a critical level. Decisions to withdraw treatment were positively associated with the importance of use of medical resources, the infant's ability to have emotional relationships, and mental abilities. Up to 50% of participants in each case believed it was permissible to either continue or withdraw treatment.
CONCLUSION: Despite the controversy, our findings indicate that in the most severe cases, most people agree that life is not worth living for a profoundly disabled infant. Our survey found wide acceptance of at least the permissibility of withdrawal of treatment across a range of cases, though also a reluctance to overrule parents' decisions. These findings may be useful when constructing guidelines for clinical practice.
In intensive care, disputes sometimes arise when patients or surrogates strongly desire treatment, yet health professionals regard it as potentially inappropriate. While professional guidelines confirm that physicians are not always obliged to provide requested treatment, determining when treatment would be inappropriate is extremely challenging. One potential reason for refusing to provide a desired and potentially beneficial treatment is because (within the setting of limited resources) this would harm other patients. Elsewhere in public health systems, cost effectiveness analysis is sometimes used to decide between different priorities for funding. In this paper, we explore whether cost-effectiveness could be used to determine the appropriateness of providing intensive care. We explore a set of treatment thresholds: the probability threshold (a minimum probability of survival for providing treatment), the cost threshold (a maximum cost of treatment), the duration threshold (the maximum duration of intensive care), and the quality threshold (a minimum quality of life). One common objection to cost-effectiveness analysis is that it might lead to rationing of life-saving treatment. The analysis in this paper might be used to inform debate about the implications of applying cost-effectiveness thresholds to clinical decisions around potentially inappropriate treatment.