The American Academy of Neurology has published a position statement providing ethical guidance for neurologists caring for patients with neurologic disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic. The document, which was published online May 15 in Neurology, reviews adaptations to the inpatient and outpatient settings and addresses the need to develop protocols for the allocation of scarce medical resources. The guidance is the product of a joint committee of the AAN, the American Neurological Association, the Child Neurology Society, and the Neurocritical Care Society Ethics Committee.

“Now is one of the most challenging times of our careers as neurologists,” said James C. Stevens, MD, president of the AAN, in a press release. “Clinics and hospitals are adapting to caring for the most ill, managing scarce resources, and trying to protect people without the disease. As neurologists, we must continue to adapt our daily practice, continue to care for our most ill neurology patients, and help contribute to the care of those afflicted with COVID-19.”

The role of telehealth

The authors recommended that ordinary appointments be held using telehealth, which, they say, already has become part of patient care. Telehealth enables neurologists to continue providing care while reducing the risk of exposure to and spread of SARS-CoV-2. The disadvantages of telehealth are that it limits physical examinations and behavioral health examinations, the authors acknowledged. “Each clinician should decide, in concert with his or her patient, if an in-person evaluation warrants the risk of an encounter,” according to the guidance.

Neurologists also should advise their patients that their neurologic condition could affect their relative risk of hospitalization and death resulting from COVID-19. Patients with multiple sclerosis or myasthenia gravis, for example, may be receiving corticosteroids or immunomodulatory therapies that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. “Even if desired services are available, neurologists and their patients ought to consider whether their care plans can safely be delayed in order to mitigate risk,” wrote the authors. Neurologists must try to maintain the customary standard of care, however, for patients with neurologic disease severe enough to warrant hospitalization, such as stroke or epilepsy.

The potential need for triage

Resources such as ventilators and ICU beds are limited, and health care facilities have had to triage them during the pandemic. Patients with a neurologic disease that decreases their likelihood of survival from a respiratory illness may not be offered these resources. Neurologists should discuss with patients and decision makers the ways in which reduced resources might affect patient care. Neurologists must “be aware of the burden of disease in their local community and how healthcare leaders plan on coping with a surge,” according to the guidance.

Advance directives, which should be a standard part of clinical care, take on increased importance during the pandemic. Patients who have not completed advance care planning documents should be encouraged to do so, according to the authors. These documents include patients’ preferences for “do not attempt resuscitation” status. Nevertheless, “we must assure patients with chronic illness that diminished resources in this healthcare crisis will not restrict their access to comfort and palliative care,” the document states.

Scarce resource allocation protocols

In the event that a surge in patients overwhelms a hospital’s contingencies and forces it to operate in crisis mode, it should have a scarce resource allocation protocol in place.

“This will surely be the most challenging aspect of patient care during this pandemic public health emergency,” wrote the authors. To ensure transparency and to mitigate the emotional effect of these decisions on patients and clinicians, scarce resource allocation protocols should be developed by teams that include intensivists, clinical ethicists, and nursing representatives who are not directly involved in the care of the critically ill patients. The goal of these protocols is to maximize the number of lives saved. They generally include an initial patient assessment followed by regular reevaluations to determine whether patients using scarce resources are benefiting less than other patients who need the same resources. The protocols should consider not only patients with COVID-19 infection, but also patients with stroke, traumatic injury, influenza, and heart failure who may need the same resources. Race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics, and perceived social worth should not influence care decisions, according to the guidance. Validated mortality prediction scales, such as the Glasgow Outcome Scale, can contribute to care decisions. Obtaining community input into these protocols will ensure trust in the health care system.

“If the situation necessitates hard decisions, we need to be fair, objective, transparent, and adamantly preserve our professional integrity,” wrote the authors. “Through it all, we owe it to our patients and families, as well as ourselves, to maintain our own health and wellness.”

The guidance was developed without funding, and the authors reported no relevant disclosures.

SOURCE: Rubin MA et al. Neurology. 2020 May 15. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000009744.