The American Geriatrics Society has issued policy recommendations aimed at protecting seniors from ageism when it comes to resource allocation in the current context of treating patients infected with COVID-19.
“The AGS is deeply concerned about Timothy W. Farrell, MD, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and colleagues wrote in an AGS position statement published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“In particular, rationing strategies that are solely, or predominantly, based on age cutoffs could lead to persistent beliefs that older adults’ lives are less valuable than others or are even expendable, and contribute to already rampant ageism,” the authors continued. “Unless the injustice in these strategies is corrected, this will be a persistent issue if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, a pandemic caused by a different virus in the future, or a different type of disaster where resources are scarce.”
To counter a potential bias against the elderly population should scarce resources force rationing decisions, AGS has made recommendations and strategies that health care systems should incorporate into a policy framework.
One principle in the AGS statement is clear: “Age per se should never be used as a means for a categorical exclusion from therapeutic interventions that represent the standard of care. … Likewise, specific age-based cutoffs should not be used in resource allocation strategies.”
Peter Angelos, MD, chief of endocrine surgery at the University of Chicago, applauded the position statement.
“It is a well-written statement and I do think that it appropriately suggests that age in and of itself is not a good predictor of who is at greatest risk if infected with coronavirus,” Dr. Angelos, who also serves as the associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, said in an interview.
He suggested a scenario in which a younger person could have multiple comorbidities that could put that individual at a higher risk of death because of complications from COVID-19 (or another pandemic in the future), compared with an older patient who is otherwise a healthy individual with a lower risk of death.
“For that reason, I agree with the authors that there should not be an arbitrary cutoff of age for which we don’t treat people or we limit treatment.”
Rather, the authors state that the primary allocation method in emergency circumstances that require rationing because of lack of resources should “equally weigh in-hospital survival and severe comorbidities contributing to short-term (<6 months) mortality.”
When assessing comorbidities, “the disparate impact of social determinants of health including culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other factors should be considered.”
AGS’s position statement adds that criteria such as “life-years saved” and “long-term predicted life expectancy” should not be used as they tend to disadvantage older adults.
The organization noted that institutions “should develop resource allocation strategies that are transparent, applied uniformly, and developed with forethought and input from multiple disciplines including ethics, medicine, law, and nursing. These strategies should be used consistently when making emergency decisions.” The AGS called for institutions to frequently review these strategies to ensure they are updated with the most recent evidence and to identify any issues of bias that may emerge.
Dr. Angelos stressed that these guidelines should be developed in a transparent and open fashion. He also highlighted the AGS recommendation of the use of triage officers or triage committees to make the determination about resource allocation should those decisions need to be made.
“We don’t want caregivers who are at the bedside taking care of patients to have the responsibility to say ‘We are going to treat one person as opposed to another person,’ ” he said. “You want to have those decisions made by a team that is separate from the bedside caregivers.”
He agreed with the statement authors that the goal of the triage committee decisions should be to maximize lives saved as opposed to life-years saved. Dr. Angelos noted that his institution’s plan focuses on lives saved should the need for resource rationing come to pass.
In addition to institutional strategies, AGS also emphasized in the position statement that older adults should develop individual care plans that include lists of medical conditions, medications, health care providers, and advance directives. The statement also noted that about only 50% of adults over age 60 years have complete advance directives, a rate Dr. Farrell and colleagues state is “unacceptably low.”
“Advance care planning should not be limited to the purview of only the primary care, geriatrics, or palliative care health professional, and urgent efforts should be made to discuss patient preferences before an emergent need arises,” the paper states, noting that specialists need to be a part of the conversation.
However, the position statement is clear that, while AGS is encouraging providers to talk about advance care planning with their patients, “providers should not pressure, even subtly, patients to engage in advance care planning or change to Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate (DNR/DNI) status with the intent to conserve health resources.”
Dr. Angelos reiterated this point and suggested that advance directive conversations need to be happening and happening more often.
“This current pandemic has forced us all to realize that, even in well-resourced societies like the United States, we may be faced with situations of absolute scarcity, so we ought to have these conversations up front so that we are not put in a position where we have to make decisions, and those decisions may not be well thought out and may not be ethically justifiable,” he said.
SOURCE: Farrell TW et al. J Am Geriat Soc. 2020 May 6; doi: 10.1111/jgs.16537.