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Hosted by Editor in Chief Lorenzo Norris, MD, Psychcast features mental health care professionals discussing the issues that most affect psychiatry.

Feb 10, 2021

Rebecca W. Brendel, MD, JD, and Allen R. Dyer, MD, PhD, join guest host Carol A. Bernstein, MD, to discuss the ethical challenges that have been occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Brendel is director of law and ethics at the Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. She also serves as director of the master of bioethics degree program at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Dr. Brendel has no disclosures.

Dr. Dyer is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, Washington. He also serves as vice chair for education at the school of medicine and health sciences. Dr. Dyer has no disclosures.

Dr. Bernstein, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association, is vice chair for faculty development and well-being at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. She has no disclosures.

Take-home points

  • Medical ethics often deal with decisions between doctors and patients, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical community has been forced to reckon with ethics on a population scale. Examples of ethical challenges include issues of scarcity, justice, transparency, and navigating distrust of the medical system.
  • In the beginning of the pandemic, individuals such as Dr. Brendel and Dr. Dyer participated in ethical planning so that hospital systems would be prepared to deal with scarcity of resources that could result in some individuals going without lifesaving interventions. During times of scarcity, transparency and accountability are necessary, because the community will ask questions about the fairness and justice of specific outcomes.
  • The philosophy of utilitarianism is a reason-based decision-making model that strives to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, and it has been commonly used as a template for ethical discussions during the pandemic. Yet, utilitarianism calculus is complicated by questions of how to define “good” and the challenge of accurately predicting the outcomes.


  • In situations of urgency, demand, and scarcity, ethics usually turns to utilitarianism with the intention of maximizing the greatest good for the greatest number. Inevitably, people or populations are harmed. Especially in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, American society grappled with the issue of scarcity and allocation of medical resources, ranging from personal protective equipment, ventilators, medical staff, ICU space, and the vaccine.  
  • Now we must think about the ethical decisions influencing COVID-19 vaccination, including weighing the risks and benefits of who gets the vaccine and when – and how certain vaccine schedules forestall the spread in the population. For example, institutionalized individuals are at great risk of contracting COVID-19, yet society debates the “good” of vaccinating elderly in nursing homes versus incarcerated individuals. Question of defining good and grappling with the consequences are present throughout the entire vaccination algorithm. Communities contend with the question of who in their ranks are essential workers: Health care workers? Teachers? Restaurant staff? Factory workers?
  • Justice and transparency are commonly discussed ethical principles, especially when we think about the algorithms created to allocate resources. Transparency is required to foster trust in the public health system, and actors within the system must demonstrate their accountability through being honest about the evidence behind policy decisions, following set parameters, and acknowledging historical reasons for distrust.
  • The pandemic has pushed society to think about the ethics of community solidarity and reflect on governmental and individual responsibility of protecting the health and well-being of the community. As the pandemic ravaged the U.S. economy and further disadvantaged already vulnerable communities, we must use this opportunity to reexamine the ethics of how health care is distributed in the United States, and work toward a just and equitable system.


Ethics and COVID10: Resource allocation and priority-setting. 2020 World Health Organization.

AMA Journal of Ethics. COVID-19 Ethics Resource Center.

Emanuel EJ et al. N Engl J Med. 2020 May 21. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsb2005114.

Dyer AR and Khin EK. Int Encycl Soc Behav Sci. 2015;63-70.

The principles of medical ethics with annotations especially applicable to psychiatry, 2013 edition. American Psychiatric Association.

American Psychiatric Association.

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Show notes by Jacqueline Posada, MD, associate producer of the Psychcast; assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University in Washington; and staff physician at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, also in Washington. Dr. Posada has no conflicts of interest.

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