The COVID-19 Crisis and Clinical
Ethics in New York City
Joseph J. Fins and Kenneth M. Prager
The COVID-19 pandemic that struck New York City in the spring of 2020 was a natural experiment for the clinical ethics services of NewYork-Presbyterian (NYP). Two distinct teams at NYP’s flagship academic medical centers—at NYP/Columbia University Medical Center (Columbia) and NYP/Weill Cornell Medical Center (Weill Cornell)—were faced with the same pandemic and operated under the same institutional rules. Each campus used time as an heuristic to analyze our collective response. The Columbia team compares consults during the pandemic with the same period during the year prior. The Weill Cornell service describes the phases of the pandemic to depict its temporal evolution and subsequent ethical challenges. Both sites report that the predominant ethical challenges centered around end-of-life decision making, setting goals of care, and medical futility, all complicated by resource allocation questions and the ambiguity of state law under crisis standards of care. The Columbia campus saw a statistically significant increase in ethics consultations provided to Hispanic patients, perhaps reflective of the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 suffered by this demographic. While Weill Cornell and Columbia saw a surge in clinical ethics consultations, the two services assumed a more expansive role than one normally played in institutional life. Serving as intermediaries between frontline clinicians and senior hospital administrators, consultants provided critical intelligence to hospital leadership about the evolution of the pandemic, disseminated information to clinicians, and also attended to the moral distress of colleagues who were asked to provide care under truly extraordinary circumstances. The COVID-19 surge in New York City revealed latent capabilities in ethics consultation that may prove useful to the broader clinical ethics community as it responds to the current pandemic and reconceptualizes its potential for future service.
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