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ICU triage in an impending crisis: uncertainty, pre-emption and preparation
  1. Dominic Wilkinson1,2,3
  1. 1 Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. 2 John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, South Australia, United Kingdom
  3. 3 Murdoch Children's Research Institute, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Professor Dominic Wilkinson, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK; dominic.wilkinson{at}

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The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic raises a host of challenging ethical questions at every level of society. However, some of the most acute questions relate to decision making in intensive care. The problem is that a small but significant proportion of patients develop severe viral pneumonitis and respiratory failure. It now seems likely that the number of critically ill patients will overwhelm the capacity of intensive care units (ICUs) within many health systems, including the National Health Service in the UK. The experience of Northern Italy—a couple of weeks ahead of the UK, suggests that it will simply not be possible to provide mechanical ventilation to every patient who might need it. When the crunch comes, the unpalatable question facing clinicians is which patient to save.

There are some obvious strategies to avoid or reduce the problem—through measures to increase intensive care capacity, and via society-level interventions to reduce the spread of the virus. These are vitally important, but unfortunately they are unlikely to prevent the problem of demand outstripping supply from occurring. What, then, should clinicians do? How should they allocate the scarce resource of intensive care—particularly over the coming weeks as the crisis escalates?

ICU triage

There are different values at stake in triage decisions, but at a basic level the key values are those of benefit and …

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