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Nov 23, 2020

Dr. Pennell and Dr. Friedman discuss the variety of ethical dilemmas for health care providers brought on by COVID-19.

NATE PENNELL: Hello, and welcome to the latest JCO Oncology Practice Podcast, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all recordings, including this one, at

My name is Dr. Nate Pennell, Medical Oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, and consultant editor for the JCOOP. I have no conflicts of interest related to this podcast, and a complete list of disclosures is available at the end of the podcast. Today I want to talk about a very serious topic that all of us who care for cancer patients really had at the front of our minds back in the spring of 2020. While it may already seem like a long time ago, when the COVID pandemic was at its peak in the United States, New York City was being inundated with of COVID. And for a while there was quite a bit of uncertainty about whether they might run out of personal protective equipment or ventilators. And there were very serious discussions happening about allocation of resources.

I personally remember patients asking me, even here in Ohio, if they might not be offered a ventilator if they became sick, because of their cancer diagnosis. And while this certainly never came close to happening in Ohio, I think it actually came closer than we'd like to admit in places like New York. With me today to discuss this really fascinating topic is Liz Blackler, who is the program manager for the Ethics Committee and Consult Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

We'll be discussing the upcoming manuscript from her and her colleagues titles, "COVID-19-related Ethics Consultations at a Cancer Center in New York City-- a Content Review of Ethics Consultations During the Early Stages of the Pandemic," which was published online August 27, 2020 in the JCOOP. Welcome Liz, and thank you for joining me on the podcast.

LIZ BLACKLER: Thank you so much for having me here today. I'm definitely looking forward to discussing our manuscripts with you. Just to note, I do not have any relationships or disclosures related to this study.

NATE PENNELL: Thank you. So what was it like to be really in the epicenter of the COVID pandemic back in the spring?

LIZ BLACKLER: There was a lot of uncertainty. We were all just trying to find our way, to figure it all out. Staff was just reconciling what was happening in real time in the city and the world, and then looking into our own hallways, seeing what was happening there. I would say it was both chaotic and eerily quiet. Our ethics consultation service, as with many ethics consultation services in the hospital, went virtual. So only those people who needed to be on site were there. And the rest of us were working from home.

And so I think as a staff, we were adjusting to doing our jobs remotely, and also watching and feeling the enormity of what was happening at the hospital with patients, and feeling just a little bit far away.

NATE PENNELL: So you are in charge of the ethics consult service. I think anyone who's ever been involved in a case that needs to involve the ethics consult service knows how incredibly interesting a job that must be, and complicated. Can you just, before we get into the COVID thing, explain what an inpatient ethics consult team does, and who is on that team?

LIZ BLACKLER: Sure. So ethics consultations are most frequently requested to help analyze and resolve complex value-laden concerns that arise between or among clinicians, and patients, and/or families. Anyone-- clinicians, non-clinician staff, patients, family members, health care agents, surrogate decision makers can request an ethics consultation. And depending on the situation, the consultant may facilitate communication between the stakeholders. This also involves clarifying treatment options and prognosis.

Our consultants also help opine moral reasoning and ethical principles to certain situations. And we spend quite a bit of time confirming and clarifying state and federal laws, and hospital policy, and how it relates to the specific patient at hand. In general, the ethics consultants work closely with all parties to help identify acceptable courses of action. Our clinical ethics consultation team is a standing subgroup of the ethics committee. And the group is voluntary, and is comprised of 10 MSK employees from a variety of disciplines. These consultants are additionally trained in clinical ethics. And currently we have nurses and physician assistants, nurse practitioners, social workers, and physicians representing psychiatry and critical care medicine.

So we work in a single-modeled service, meaning consultants work independently, and then reach out to other consultants for assistance as needed. So we are a busy service at baseline. And during COVID, our ethics consultations actually doubled.

NATE PENNELL: Yeah, I can see that when you start to delve into your paper, and the issues that came up. And what are the special ethical concerns that arose that might involve COVID in patients with cancer that differed from the usual things you would see patients about in the hospital?

LIZ BLACKLER: Sure, it was actually what spurred us to do a retrospective review on our ethics consultation service. We encountered two, I would think, unique issues that came up that we had not previously seen before on the ethics consultation service. Our very first COVID-19-related ethics consult focused on a patient with decisional capacity who was admitted to the floor, and wanted to be discharged against medical advice while he was waiting for his COVID-19 test to come back.

In the beginning, it was taking a couple of days to get those results back. Staff was very concerned if a patient would not adequately quarantine at home, while we are waiting for the results. In fact, he said he would not quarantine, that he would be out in the subway, and this and that. So we were called in to assist in clarifying whether respecting this patient's autonomy to leave the hospital AMA outweighed our obligation to keep the patient in isolation, and prevent him from potentially spreading the infection.

We had never encountered an issue like that before. So in that case, we were able to support the patient, and help him understand the reasoning why he needed to stay. In the early days of the pandemic, as we were just sorting out what was causing the spread of COVID, I think we would have likely leaned towards figuring out a way to keep him, as long as we could. It's always tricky in that we don't want to override someone's autonomy, unless absolutely necessary. And so there were two cases like this, where we really had to weigh the risk to the public against individual autonomy of the patient.

NATE PENNELL: Yeah, I know. It's very interesting to think about something like that. At first blush, it seems as though there would be no legal way to keep someone if they wanted to leave. But then switch it out and say, well this patient has Ebola now, and wants to go out on their own. And suddenly it jumps to the front of your mind that maybe it's not quite so simple. It also, I think, illustrates nicely what the ethics team does, which is not necessarily to come in and deliver an academic treatise on the ethical principles of who's right and who's wrong, but to help negotiate the different parties to come to an acceptable agreement.

LIZ BLACKLER: Exactly. And in a similar case, we had a family who was wanting to leave the hospital, and go to a local hotel. But at the time, the hotels were either COVID-positive hotels or COVID-negative hotels. And this family insisted on having their loved ones stay at the hotel that was a COVID negative hotel. And so the staff called a similar consult line to know whether they had an obligation to share the patient's medical status with the hotel. And in a similar mind, we did just what you said. We pulled the whole team together. We met with the patient and family, expressed our concerns, and actually helped identify an acceptable hotel that would make a concession, that was in the geographic location of where they wanted to be, that would in fact sterilize and come up with its own private entrance for this patient. So everybody was happy, right? We knew he would be safe, and the family got to have this loved one closer to home.

NATE PENNELL: I'm sure that doesn't always end up with such a good result at the end. But that sounds like a good job. So you had some fascinating consults. So most of your manuscript is describing some of the examples of the types of scenarios that you had to address. So can you take us through some of those, both just like the general themes and then maybe some specific examples?

LIZ BLACKLER: Of course. So like I said, we performed a retrospective review of all of our COVID-19 ethics-related consults that happened between mid-March and the end of April. There were 26 consults total performed on 24 unique patients. The most common ethical issue was related to code status. So these were patients. Staff members were concerned about incubating, or performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, because of the high risk for aerosolizing procedures.

If you remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a high level of anxiety about supply shortage of personal protective equipment. So staff was very concerned about whether it was ethically appropriate to provide CPR for our patients with poor prognosis, because many, if not most of our patients at that time, not only had advanced cancer, but they had concurrent COVID-19 infection. They had a poor prognosis. Because there was a lot of risks to providing the CPR and intubation with minimal benefit, and so more than half of our consults came through that were questioning that, this idea of non-beneficial treatment.

NATE PENNELL: Well, I guess it's hard not to stop, and talk about that a little bit. So you've got a patient with advanced cancer, who presumably wants to be full code, but is COVID positive. How do you even start to address something like that with the patient and the staff who are worried?

LIZ BLACKLER: As you know, many of our patients with advanced cancer and respiratory distress, it's quite hard to have conversations with them for lots of reasons. I think complicating the situation was we had a zero visitor policy at that time at the hospital. So all hospitals in the state had zero visitor policies. There was no family or caregivers or agents at bedside. We had family at home listening to the news, and they're recognizing how important something like a ventilator was for patients with COVID, as a bridge to recovery. And many family members very much wanted to give their loved one an opportunity to recover from COVID, despite something like a stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis with no [INAUDIBLE]

And so as you can imagine, on a day-to-day basis pre-COVID, we do a lot of goals of care discussion. So we spend a lot of time with patients and families trying to help them understand the limitations to treatment at the end of life, and what is ethically and morally appropriate, and what may not be the right thing to do. And so we had to apply all of those same tactics in a very expedited fashion, talking with family who were isolated and removed from the situation, who could not be at bedside with their loved one to try to help them come to terms with what was happening.

What you may not know is New York state has a law that says full code, cardiopulmonary resuscitation is the de facto intervention for all patients, unless they consent specifically to a do-not-resuscitate order. So we were obligated by law to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on all patients with families who wanted it. And so we spent a lot of time talking with our families to help them understand what's happening. And some of those patients did have cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and others understood the gravity of the situation, and were more amenable to do-not-resuscitate orders.

NATE PENNELL: Yeah, it must have been incredibly challenging. But any other themes that arose in terms of the consults that you received?

LIZ BLACKLER: Interestingly we had three or four consults that came through by staff that were concerned that patients were requesting a do-not-resuscitate order prematurely, that it was not standard of care for their clinical situation. What we suspected that it was the converse of what was happening. Patients and families had this altruistic response to the local and national focus on scarce resources. So saying, wow, we understand how difficult things are right now. We're OK. Please focus your resources on someone else.


LIZ BLACKLER: So that was--

NATE PENNELL: Yeah, I can imagine that would have been-- well hopefully, I guess, that might not have been quite as challenging. Because maybe some of that might have been a lack of understanding about the prognosis, and people who actually did have a reasonable prognosis might-- I don't know if they were convinced to change their minds, or they generally just supported their decision.

LIZ BLACKLER: We did a little of both. I think in two of the situations, we were able to help families understand the nuances of the situation, and they agreed to a trial intubation. Other families were insistent that this was not in line with their loved one's wishes, which might have been separate from the COVID-19 pandemic.

One thing we did do with the hospitals early in the pandemic, we requested, mandated if you will, that all outpatient oncologists communicate and document the goals of care conversation with their patients on admission within 24 hours. And so each patient that was admitted to the hospital had a discussion. All those who could had discussions with their outpatient primary oncologist about diagnosis, treatment options at present, and what their wishes were regarding goals of care. And that very much helped the ethics consultation service and the services in the hospital provide care that was aligned with not only treatment options, but the patient's and family's wishes.

NATE PENNELL: That's really interesting. Because many people were listening to this podcast might think, well, gosh. Shouldn't you do that anyway when someone gets admitted to the hospital with advanced cancer? But perhaps the pandemic offered an opportunity, because patients were thinking about it now, as opposed to oftentimes when they get admitted and it suddenly is a bit of a shock to be presented with the question of what they would want if they needed to be resuscitated.

LIZ BLACKLER: Agreed. I think it's a natural opportunity for us to continue to strengthen our need for and goals of care conversations for all of our patients, whether they're stage one cancers or stage four cancers. And so I think it was this natural time where everybody was talking about it. And it just felt it was-- it was just made sense for us to do. And it is something that we've been trying to continue as a hospital. These conversations are hard to have. Patients and families are not always receptive. Clinicians are not always ready to have those conversation either. And so if anything, the pandemic brought us all together, and we all recognize in the anticipation of scarce resources how can we best take care of these patients. What's first and foremost is we have to have a better understanding of what our patient's wishes and preferences are.

NATE PENNELL: One of the things that continues, at least to some extent in a lot of places, is the restrictions on visitors and caregivers in the hospital, although perhaps not as strict as it was back in the spring. How did the inability of caregivers and powers of attorney and things like that to physically be present impact your job? And I guess more broadly, how does being forced to work over a sort of video conferencing impact these conversations?

LIZ BLACKLER: Sure. I think the level of distress secondary to the limited or lack of visitors at bedside, was palpable. So the nursing staff, the clinical staff, and non-clinical staff who were in the hospital at bedside every day were very upset. It was an incredibly sad time. And that in itself led to more ethics consultations, the amount of distress. And so we as a consultation service, worked hard in our virtual platform to provide extra support to staff who were trying to manage these patients to really take care of them in a way, in a kind and compassionate way in the midst of all of this chaos.

We started something called a virtual ethics open office hours. We actually set up a virtual Zoom twice a week where my consultants would sit on the Zoom call and just field questions, general questions that were coming up from staff. Because there was a lot of anticipation of what was to come, and how the hospital was prepared, how we were prepared to take care of patients, if we were to not have enough ventilators, or if we were not have enough blood products. And so the anticipation of all of that was very extremely stressful for staff, and I think compounded by the fact that there was no support at bedside for the patients.

I would say as a consultant service, going virtual certainly had its hiccups at first. But I actually think in the long run, we were able to really support patients and caregivers in a different way. There were more families that were able to participate in some of the family meetings, if they were scattered around the tri-state area or the country even. And so once everybody was acclimated to using these platforms, staff and family alike, then there were more opportunities for families to engage and participate in these family meetings. We were able to outfit many of our rooms with video access so that the patients who were able to participate were also able to participate, to be there [INAUDIBLE]

NATE PENNELL: It sounds like you did the best with what you could. And certainly it was tough on our patients, because they didn't have anyone to be there with them. But I can see the benefits of bringing people in who otherwise might have had trouble participating. So I wanted to just briefly touch upon something that I'm not sure if everyone realized this. But in anticipation of being completely inundated and running out of ventilators and whatnot, some hospitals were putting together protocols on how they would allocate resources. And it sounds like you may have been part of putting something like that together for your hospital. I know it was never needed. But can you talk a little bit about that?

LIZ BLACKLER: Sure. I think one of our obligations as an ethics committee is we have a duty to plan, and a duty to steward resources, and a duty to be transparent about it. So early in the pandemic, the ethics committee was asked to draft allocation policy in the event that we had a scarcity of equipment, or staff, resources, blood products. I remember being sent home from the office to start writing that policy. And I actually haven't been back since. What I will say is although an incredibly difficult policy to write, it was heart-wrenching for all of the reasons that you can imagine. It felt important to at least have a framework in place just in case. And so we made a decision as an ethics committee and consultation service to model the framework after the New York State ventilator guidelines that were published in 2015.

We made some slight modifications to address our unique cancer patient population. We chose the New York State guidelines, because they were developed just a few years before with support from our state government. The guidelines were also publicly available, and we assumed had passed with public support. There are no perfect guidelines. And so for us, in many ways we were lucky to have had a blueprint, something to work with in our state. While acknowledging that without state support, we were fully aware that if the crisis standards of care were needed, they needed to be implemented statewide with consistency.

We also struggled with trying to recognize that the policies needed to take into account inequities in access and delivery of health care, with special considerations for inherent bias, based on socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, age, and others with disabilities. I think as a bioethics community, we're working to update allocation policy that acknowledges and begins to rectify such bias. And so we're able to think about that now, looking back on what's happened a few months ago. But in real time, what we had with the New York state guidelines, which I think is a good start, those guidelines are your classic guidelines that look to maximize benefit of resource in order to save as many lives as possible.

The [INAUDIBLE] is given to patients for whom resources would most likely be lifesaving. We put into place a classic triage process that was grounded in a clinical scoring system. And we also made sure to remove the triage decisions from the bedside clinician, instead relying on a triage committee that would be made up of critical care physicians, administration, ethics consultants, or committee members, and other senior staff from the hospital to help make these determinations based on this clearly spelled out criteria, knowing that there were flaws in those criteria. And so we did put together a policy. We thankfully did not have to implement that policy. But we have the policy put into place.

NATE PENNELL: And that, I think, leads us really nicely into my last question, which is really what did you learn from all of this going forward? So if this happens again, hopefully not with COVID, but another emergency or something that leads to strained resources; what take-home lessons can you take from this that will make that perhaps an easier situation the next time?

LIZ BLACKLER: Sure I'll approach it from a macro and a micro standpoint. So within the hospital, one of the things that we learned is that our clinician's preoccupation and distress when confronted with these difficult choices in the pandemic, with the anticipation of a scarce resource, was palpable. And that as an ethics consultation service, we have an obligation to put together a center-based initiative to really support staff in real time. And so going virtual quickly, setting up services for staff that are proactive instead of reactive, it has been very helpful. And so I mentioned the virtual ethics clinics or office hours as one way to reach a lot of staff quickly, and to provide support in real time.

I think the other issue I touched on briefly, and that is working within the state and the country to come up with acceptable allocation policies that acknowledge bias, that acknowledged disparities in health care, and delivery of health care, and access to health care are extremely important. So one thing that has come out of this that I'm very proud of, as a hospital we at Memorial Sloan Kettering, we reached out to all of our colleagues in the city and upstate New York, and have recently just for formed an Empire State Bioethics Consortium. So all of the chairs of the bioethics departments from around the state, we now meet on a regular Monday night phone calls, to talk about what's happened, anticipation for future, and really working on a broad range of ethical issues that affect New York State.

NATE PENNELL: Liz, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

LIZ BLACKLER: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

NATE PENNELL: I'm glad we're going to have the opportunity to highlight your manuscript, which I think is really going to be beneficial to people who hopefully will not be presented with this in the future. But if they are, it's something to get them thinking. And until next time, I want to thank our listeners for listening to the JCO Oncology Practice podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or a review on Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen.

While you're there, be sure to subscribe, so you never miss an episode. JCOOP podcasts are just one of ASCO's as many podcast programs. You can find all the recordings at And the full text of this paper is available online at, backslash journal, backslash op. And this is Dr. Nate Pennell for the JCO Oncology Practice signing off. Thanks for listening.

SPEAKER 1: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care, and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement. For more original research, editorials, and review articles; please visit us online at This production is copyrighted to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Thank you for listening.