More than a dozen people are dead and dozens more were injured by severe storms and tornadoes that struck portions of the Southern U.S. over the weekend.
As always, physicians were critical to minimizing the loss of life. But providing medical care during disasters involves unique challenges and ethical issues. The AMA Code of Medical Ethics offers guidance on preparing for, and providing care during, emergencies.
What the Code says
In Opinion 8.3, “Physicians’ responsibilities in disaster response and preparedness,” the Code explains:
Whether at the national, regional or local level, responses to disasters require extensive involvement from physicians individually and collectively. Because of their commitment to care for the sick and injured, individual physicians have an obligation to provide urgent medical care during disasters. This obligation holds even in the face of greater than usual risks to physicians’ own safety, health or life.
However, the physician workforce is not an unlimited resource. Therefore, when providing care in a disaster with its inherent dangers, physicians also have an obligation to evaluate the risks of providing care to individual patients versus the need to be available to provide care in the future.
With respect to disaster, whether natural or manmade, individual physicians should:
(a) Take appropriate advance measures, including acquiring and maintaining appropriate knowledge and skills to ensure they are able to provide medical services when needed.
Collectively, physicians should:
(b) Provide medical expertise and work with others to develop public health policies that:
(i) are designed to improve the effectiveness and availability of medical services during a disaster; (ii) are based on sound science; (iii) are based on respect for patients.
(c) Advocate for and participate in ethically sound research to inform policy decisions.
More go-to guidance
Chapter 8 of the Code, “Opinions on physicians and the health of the community,” also features opinions on dealing with impaired drivers, using quarantine and isolation, promoting patient safety and reporting adverse events.
The Code of Medical Ethics is a living document, updated periodically to address the changing conditions of medicine. The new edition, adopted in June 2016, is the culmination of an eight-year project to comprehensively review, update and reorganize guidance to ensure that the Code remains timely and easy to use for physicians in teaching and in practice.
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