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Ann Emerg Med. 2008 Apr;51(4):345-53. Epub 2007 Oct 24.

Fight or flight: the ethics of emergency physician disaster response.

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1
Department of Emergency Medicine, and the Arizona Bioethics Program of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, AZ 85724, USA. kvi@u.arizona.edu

Abstract

Most disaster plans depend on using emergency physicians, nurses, emergency department support staff, and out-of-hospital personnel to maintain the health care system's front line during crises that involve personal risk to themselves or their families. Planners automatically assume that emergency health care workers will respond. However, we need to ask: Should they, and will they, work rather than flee? The answer involves basic moral and personal issues. This article identifies and examines the factors that influence health care workers' decisions in these situations. After reviewing physicians' response to past disasters and epidemics, we evaluate how much danger they actually faced. Next, we examine guidelines from medical professional organizations about physicians' duty to provide care despite personal risks, although we acknowledge that individuals will interpret and apply professional expectations and norms according to their own situation and values. The article goes on to articulate moral arguments for a duty to treat during disasters and social crises, as well as moral reasons that may limit or override such a duty. How fear influences behavior is examined, as are the institutional and social measures that can be taken to control fear and to encourage health professionals to provide treatment in crisis situations. Finally, the article emphasizes the importance of effective risk communication in enabling health care professionals and the public to make informed and defensible decisions during disasters. We conclude that the decision to stay or leave will ultimately depend on individuals' risk assessment and their value systems. Preparations for the next pandemic or disaster should include policies that encourage emergency physicians, who are inevitably among those at highest risk, to "stay and fight."

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