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Protecting providers and patients: results of an Internet survey of health care workers’ risk perceptions and ethical concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • O’Neal, Lauren1
  • Heisler, Michele2, 3
  • Mishori, Ranit2, 4
  • Haar, Rohini J.1
  • 1 University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA , Berkeley (United States)
  • 2 Physicians for Human Rights, New York, NY, USA , New York (United States)
  • 3 University of Michigan School of Medicine and School of Public Health, Ann Arbor, MI, USA , Ann Arbor (United States)
  • 4 Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC, USA , Washington (United States)
Published Article
International Journal of Emergency Medicine
Springer Berlin Heidelberg
Publication Date
Mar 24, 2021
DOI: 10.1186/s12245-021-00341-0
Springer Nature


BackgroundThe COVID-19 pandemic has generated worldwide scarcity of critical resources to protect against and treat disease. Shortages of face masks and other protective equipment place health workers, already on the frontline of the disease, at higher risk. Moral distress from making difficult decisions about allocating scarce resources and care to patients ill with COVID-19 can further add to burdens health workers face. This study investigates clinical health workers’ risk perceptions and concerns about the ethics of their clinical decision-making, the actions of their institutions to address resource scarcity concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their ability to voice safety concerns, as well as their own views on how scarce resources should be allocated.MethodsAn online survey was open to health care workers who provide clinical care to patients, with no specialty training or geographic location requirements, from May 19 to June 30, 2020. Participants were recruited through purposive sampling using medical association and institutional email lists, and by snowball sampling.ResultsOf 839 participants, a majority were physicians (540, 69.4%) working in academic medical centers (270, 35.2%) or private health systems in the community (234, 30.5%) in the USA (760, 90.7%). Most reported being concerned about their own health (494, 73.6%) and about the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to family and friends (534, 85.9%) during the pandemic. All respondents reported shortages or rationing of at least one type of medical resource (e.g., sanitizing supplies and personal protective equipment). More than half of respondents (351, 53.9%) did not feel they received sufficient training in how to allocate scarce resources in the pandemic. Many felt moral distress related to conflicts between institutional constraints and what they believed was right (459, 66.5%). Though a majority (459, 67.7%) reported feeling “comfortable” internally communicating with their administration about safety issues, far fewer reported feeling “confident” speaking publicly about safety issues without retaliation from their institution (255, 37.3%).ConclusionsIn the face of limited resources, surveyed health care workers reported concern about their own and their families’ health from exposure. Securing adequate protective equipment must be a high priority for pandemic management. In addition, more governmental and facility-level ethical guidance is required for allocation of resources given ongoing scarcity, and facilities must create conditions so health care workers can speak openly about safety issues without fear of retaliation.

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