Ethical Dilemmas and Digestive Symptoms –Common with COVID-19

Ethical Dilemmas:

Full link: NEJM: Facing Covid-19 in Italy — Ethics, Logistics, and Therapeutics on the Epidemic’s Front Line

That truth is rather grim. Though Italy’s health system is highly regarded and has 3.2 hospital beds per 1000 people (as compared with 2.8 in the United States), it has been impossible to meet the needs of so many critically ill patients simultaneously…

If protecting patients is difficult, so is protecting health care workers, including nurses, respiratory therapists, and those tasked to clean the rooms between patients…

Though approaches vary even within a single hospital, I sensed that age was often given the most weight.

In the midst of the outbreak’s peak in northern Italy, as physicians struggled to wean patients off ventilators while others developed severe respiratory decompensation, hospitals had to lower the age cutoff — from 80 to 75 at one hospital, for instance…

The first and most important is to separate clinicians providing care from those making triage decisions. The “triage officer,” backed by a team with expertise in nursing and respiratory therapy, would make resource-allocation decisions and communicate them to the clinical team, the patient, and the family.

Digestive Symptoms:

From ACG: Full Link: ACG Media Statement

Excerpt:  (March 18, 2020) – Digestive symptoms are common in COVID19, occurring as the chief complaint in nearly half of patients presenting to hospital according to a new
descriptive, cross-sectional multicenter study from China by investigators from the Wuhan Medical Treatment Expert Group for COVID-19 published today in The American Journal of Gastroenterology

Key findings:

  • Compared to COVID-19 patients without digestive symptoms, those with digestive symptoms have a longer time from onset to admission and a worse clinical outcome according to this analysis by investigators from several hospitals and research centers in China who gathered data on 204 patients with COVID-19 presenting to three
    hospitals in Hubei province from January 18, 2020 to February 28, 2020.
  • Patients with digestive symptoms had a variety of manifestations, such as anorexia (83 [83.8%] cases), diarrhea (29 [29.3%] cases), vomiting (8 [0.8%] cases), and abdominal pain (4 [0.4%] cases)
  • As the severity of the disease increased, digestive symptoms became more pronounced.
  • Link to study: Pan L, et al., Clinical characteristics of COVID-19 patients with digestive symptoms in Hubei, China: a descriptive, cross-sectional, multicenter study, Am J Gastroenterol 


Difficult Boundaries in Patient Care

An interesting article in the NEJM (here’s link to full text: No Appointment Necessary?) explores the ethical and practical challenges of being asked to help in the care of friends and families.  These issues are definitely not abstract.  I would be surprised if most physicians have not received multiple requests for advice or for prescriptions.  Some of the potential problems listed include the following:

  • feeling pressured to practice outside their area of expertise
  • lack of complete information about the problem
  • not asking for sensitive information
  • emotional investment/loss of perspective
  • conflict of interest
  • potential for guilt/remorse if clinical error
  • poor documentation

The article notes that “the very first code of medical ethics drafted by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1847 recommended against physicians treating family members, stating that “the natural anxiety and solicitude which he [the physician] experiences at the sickness of a wife, a child . . . tend to obscure his judgment, and produce timidity and irresolution in his practice.

Yet, in practice, “a 1991 study showed that 99% of surveyed physicians reported having received requests from family members for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and 83% had prescribed medications for relatives.6  Physicians cite convenience as a key reason to provide this care, but other explanations have included a wish to save the relative money as well as a belief that ‘I provide the best care.’

Take-home message (from the authors): It is our hope that providers will think through the potential ethical conflicts before offering informal care. We also urge providers who are involved in medical education to help trainees understand the ethical boundaries of care as part of their professional role and encourage them to refrain from treating friends, family members, and themselves.