Coronavirus ethics: When healthy and young has priority over sick and old

In the last few days, the prospect of limited intensive care places and too many patients has become more real. Professors of philosophy have been sought after for their views. In Sweden, the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) has produced new guidelines so that doctors and nurses forced to make life and death choices have support for their decisions. The guiding principle is stated to be the “expected remaining lifetime” without consideration of “social standing, disabilities or actual age”. Of course this is inherently contradictory since expected remaining lifetime and actual age cannot be divorced. In their new guidelines the Board skates over this contradiction by claiming that it is “biological age” that is being considered and not “actual age”.

The guidelines define priorities for intensive care (my translation):

Priority 1: Patients who have a serious illness but are expected to survive longer than 12 months. If it becomes necessary to prioritize within this group, it must not be done based on the patient’s social situation / position,  any disabilities or the person’s actual age. It may, however, be based on what is called biological age. The latter means that the expected life expectancy is calculated using a number of factors. Those who are younger are then given priority over the older if the health status of both is otherwise equal. But conversely, a patient who is older but otherwise in good health should be given priority over a younger person who, due to illness or otherwise, is expected to live shorter.

Priority 2: Patients with one or more severe systemic disorders with significant functional limitation. These include, for example, insufficiently controlled diabetes, COPD, morbid obesity (BMI ≥40), active hepatitis, alcohol abuse, pacemaker addiction and a heart attack or stroke older than three months. This group also includes those who have an expected survival of 6-12 months.

Priority 3: Patients with an expected low probability of survival. These may be cases where the intensive care unit is normally only used to enable a renewed assessment and consultation with related persons.

Swedish television reports:


If the corona crisis worsens, healthcare will be forced to prioritize – and patients who have had good prospects of coping may be rejected. “It can be so in an extreme situation”, says Lars Sandman, Professor of health ethics.

Health care always needs to be prioritized. But in a situation where the number of corona-infected who need intensive care is increasing dramatically, this can result in many difficult decisions. Therefore, new guidelines for priorities in health care have been developed on behalf of the National Board of Health and Welfare. “Suppose we get completely full departments with many very seriously ill people who have marginal conditions to come back to life after intensive care and then other more basically healthy people knock at the door. Then it can be a very difficult decision”, says Andreas Hvarfner, chief physician in anesthesia and intensive care at Karolinska University Hospital in Solna.

Will this mean that infected elderly patients who have severe diabetes, lung disease, pacemakers and are overweight are at risk of not receiving intensive care? “Of course, that may eventually be so” says Andreas Hvarfner.

Lars Sandman, professor of health ethics at Linköping University, has been involved in developing the new guidelines. “When faced with these difficult decisions, it is important that there is clear support and that one can lean back on ethical principles that in this case are legal and instituted by Parliament in 1997. We have tried to clarify how they should be interpreted” , he said.

If there is now a storm that many believe, will people prioritize between people who may have roughly the same conditions? “It can be so in an extreme situation. Then we have stated in the guidelines that you can choose the one that has the longest remaining life expectancy . We want to avoid getting into that situation and therefore we are working hard to get more intensive care places”. This means that young people do come ahead of the elderly if they have similar conditions to survive. According to Lars Sandman, the problem is that there are no alternatives. “You can of course imagine a queuing situation, but then you run the risk that a patient who may have less chance of survival gets the place and that two patients instead of one die in the end”.

Consider the case of two sick patients and only one intensive care place. Younger and healthier will always have a higher expected remaining life and have a higher priority. If both have the same chance of survival, the younger will always get priority. For an older person to get priority by the remaining lifetime criterion, the chance of survival will have to be much higher than for the younger person. The stipulation that social standing have no impact means that a younger, healthier, anti-social, scrounger will get a higher priority than a worthy, productive, sicker, older person.

Of course, this is oversimplified. In reality the chances of survival with intensive care have to be first judged against chances of survival without. It is unlikely that chances of survival without intensive care could both be zero in two cases which had widely different chances with intensive care.

Take:  expected remaining life = (life expectancy – actual age) x chance of survival

Let us assume a life expectancy of 90 years and a base case of a very sick 20 year old with only a 10% chance of survival. Expected remaining life would then be 10% of life remaining giving 7 years. An older person would have priority if their chance of survival was sufficient to give an expected life remaining of greater than 7 years. To get priority a 50 year old would need a chance of survival of 17.5%, a 70 year old would need 35% and and an 80 year old would need a 70% chance of survival. Anybody over 83 would never get priority – even if they had a 99% chance of survival.

Of course, it is age discrimination disguised with words (biological age) to ostensibly comply with the laws on discrimination. But the Board really has no choice.

The issue I have is not really with the Board but with the delusion that the value of humans is not connected to their social behaviour and the myth that humans are equal.


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One Response to “Coronavirus ethics: When healthy and young has priority over sick and old”

  1. Have the old been sacrificed in Sweden? | The k2p blog Says:

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