Ethical guidance for disaster response, specifically around crisis standards of care: A systematic review

Jonathon P. Leider, Debra Debruin, Nicole Reynolds, Angelica Koch, Judy Seaberg

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


Background. Terrorism, disease outbreaks, and other natural disasters and mass casualty events have pushed health care and public health systems to identify and refine emergency preparedness protocols for disaster response. Ethical guidance, alongside legal and medical frameworks, are increasingly common components of disaster response plans. Objectives. To systematically review the prevalence and content of ethical guidance offered for disaster response, specifically around crisis standards of care (CSCs). Search methods. We systematically indexed academic literature from PubMed, Google Scholar, and ISI Web of Science from 2012 to 2016. Selection criteria. We searched for peer-reviewed articles that substantively engaged in discussion of ethical guidance for CSCs. Data collection and analysis. Researchers screened potential articles for identification and discussion of ethical issues in CSC planning. We categorized and cataloged ethical concepts and principles. Main results. Of 580 peer-reviewed articles mentioning ethics and CSCs or disaster planning, 38 (6%)met selection criteria.The systematic reviewof the CSC ethics literature since 2012 showed that authors were primarily focused on the ethical justifications for CSC (n = 20) as well as a need for ethics guidelines for implementing CSCs; the ethical justifications for triage (n = 19), both as to which criteria to use and the appropriate processes by which to employ triage; and international issues (n = 17). In addition to these areas of focus, the scholarly literature included discussion of a number of other ethical issues, including duty to care (n = 11), concepts of a duty to plan (n = 8), utilitarianism (n = 5), moral distress (n = 4), professional norms (n = 3), reciprocity (n = 2), allocation criteria (n= 4), equity (n = 4), research ethics (n = 2), duty to steward resources (n = 2), social utility and social worth (n = 2), and a number of others (n = 20). Although public health preparedness efforts have paid increasing attention to CSCs in recent years, CSC plans have rarely been implemented within the United States to date, although some components are common (e.g., triage is used in US emergency departments regularly). Conversely, countries outside the United States more commonly implement CSCs within a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis response, and may offer significant insight into ethics and disaster response for US-based practitioners. Conclusions. This systematic review identifies the most oft-used and -discussed ethical concepts and principles used in disaster planning around CSCs. Although discussion ofmore nuanced issues (e.g., health equity) are present, the majority of items substantively engaging in ethical discussion around disaster planning do so regarding triage and why ethics is needed in disaster response generally. Public health implications. A significant evolution in disaster planning has occurred within the past decade; ethical theories and frameworks have been put to work. For ethical guidance to be useful, it must be practical and implementable. Although high-level, abstract frameworks were once prevalent in disaster planning-especially in the early days of pandemic planning-concerns about the ethically difficult concept of CSCs pervade scholarly articles. Ethical norms must be clearly stated and justified and practical guidelines ought to follow from them. Ethical frameworks should guide clinical protocols, but this requires that ethical analysis clarifies what strategies to use to honor ethical commitments and achieve ethical objectives. Such implementation issues must be considered well ahead of a disaster. As governments and health care systems plan for mass casualty events, ethical guidance that is theoretically sound and practically useful can-And should-form an important foundation from which to build practical guidance for responding to disasters with morally appropriate means.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e1-e9
JournalAmerican journal of public health
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was conducted with funding from and in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health. The Minnesota Department of Health was funded by a cooperative agreement from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.


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