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Physicians’ primary ethical obligation is to promote the well-being of their patients. Policies for allocating scarce health care resources can impede their ability to fulfill that obligation, whether those policies address situations of chronically limited resources, such as ICU (intensive care unit) beds, medications, or solid organs for transplantation, or “triage” situations in times of scarcity, such as access to ventilators during an influenza pandemic.

As professionals dedicated to protecting the interests of their patients, physicians thus have a responsibility to contribute their expertise to developing allocation policies that are fair and safeguard the welfare of patients.

Individually and collectively through the profession, physicians should advocate for policies and procedures that allocate scarce health care resources fairly among patients, in keeping with the following criteria:

  1. Base allocation policies on criteria relating to medical need, including urgency of need, likelihood and anticipated duration of benefit, and change in quality of life. In limited circumstances, it may be appropriate to take into consideration the amount of resources required for successful treatment. It is not appropriate to base allocation policies on social worth, perceived obstacles to treatment, patient contribution to illness, past use of resources, or other non-medical characteristics.
  2. Give first priority to those patients for whom treatment will avoid premature death or extremely poor outcomes, then to patients who will experience the greatest change in quality of life, when there are very substantial differences among patients who need access to the scarce resource(s).
  3. Use an objective, flexible, transparent mechanism to determine which patients will receive the resource(s) when there are not substantial differences among patients who need access to the scarce resource(s).
  4. Explain the applicable allocation policies or procedures to patients who are denied access to the scarce resource(s) and to the public.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: I, VII
Read the Principles