Are we doing the right thing in the face of disaster?
Sandy. Haiti. Katrina. Fukushima. Earthquake. Tsunami. We are familiar with the names and terms that describe natural disasters and their fallout around the globe. Meanwhile, news pours in of deaths and casualties in areas of conflict.
But how much do we know about the bioethics of humanitarian responses to such crises? What are the ethical dilemmas around deciding to treat some people and not others as the resources allow? How can we address cultural and planning practices that could put people at higher risk of death in a disaster? And how does a team dealing with the pressures of an acute disaster consider the long-term impact on survivors?
Those are some of the ethical issues to be explored by a new European project led by Dublin City University, which is setting up a global network to inform research and training.
“The overall aim is to improve ethical decision making for healthcare, medical relief workers and those doing research around disasters,” says Dr Dónal O’Mathúna, a senior lecturer in ethics in DCU’s school of nursing and human sciences and an affiliated scholar at DCU’s Institute of Ethics.
He’s leading an initiative on disaster bioethics that’s being funded through the European Union’s Cost programme. It is already drawing together bioethicists and medical relief personnel from 19 countries and has had contact with major global health and humanitarian organisations.
The project will gather information about the kinds of ethical issues that people experience on the ground when dealing with disaster relief, but some are already known, according to O’Mathúna.
“One of the big issues is that people go out into dangerous, unstable areas and they usually have a lot fewer resources than they are used to, or they just don’t have materials on the ground,” he says.
“That means they frequently have to make what would be called triage decisions, where they decide who they can treat and who they can’t.”
No ideal answer
In essence, they have gone to provide care but find that in some cases they can’t, and they sometimes lack the training to deal with that, he explains.
“They may have to decide who gets to avail of whatever medicine they have, who gets surgery at a field hospital and who gets left with little or no care and maybe even no pain relief. Those decisions are extremely psychologically wearing,” says O’Mathúna.
“Part of the problem is that so much of western ethics training is about finding the ideal solution and then implementing it. But in a lot of disaster settings there is no ideal answer – it’s choosing the lesser of two or several evils.
“So one of our aims is to develop training materials that would help to at least prepare people for some of these decisions they are going to have to make.”