Critical Ethics: How to Balance Patient Autonomy with Fairness When Patients Refuse Coronavirus Disease 2019 Testing

Piroska K. Kopar, Jessica B. Kramer, Douglas E. Brown, Grant V. Bochicchio

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Objectives: A cornerstone of our healthcare system's response to the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic is widespread testing to facilitate both isolation and early treatment. When patients refuse to undergo coronavirus disease testing, they compromise not only just their own health but also the health of those around them. The primary objective of our review is to identify the most ethical way a given healthcare system may respond to a patient's refusal to undergo coronavirus disease 2019 testing. Data Sources: We apply a systematic approach to a true clinical case scenario to evaluate the ethical merits of four plausible responses to a patient's refusal to undergo coronavirus disease testing. Although our clinical case is anecdotal, it is representative of our experience at our University Tertiary Care Center. Data Extraction: Each plausible response in the case is rigorously analyzed by examining relevant stakeholders, facts, norms, and ethical weight both with respect to individuals' rights and to the interests of public health. We use the "So Far No Objections" method as the ethical approach of choice because it has been widely used in the Ethics Modules of the Surgical Council on Resident Education Curriculum of the American College of Surgeons. Data Synthesis: Two ethically viable options may be tailored to individual circumstances depending on the severity of the patient's condition. Although unstable patients must be assumed to be coronavirus disease positive and treated accordingly even in the absence of a test, stable patients who refuse testing may rightfully be asked to seek care elsewhere. Conclusions: Although patient autonomy is a fundamental principle of our society's medical ethic, during a pandemic we must, in the interest of vulnerable and critically ill patients, draw certain limits to obliging the preferences of noncritically ill patients with decisional capacity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E0326
JournalCritical Care Explorations
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 22 2021


  • allocation of scarce resources
  • coronavirus disease 2019
  • patient autonomy
  • triaging


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