Frequently Asked Questions - Proposed Policy on Allocation of Ventilators in an Influenza Pandemic

Q: Why is it necessary to have a policy on ventilator allocation in a severe pandemic?

A: One critical factor when planning for a severe (1918-like) pandemic is the shortage of life-sustaining equipment such as mechanical ventilators. Although New York State continues to purchase additional ventilators for our Medical Emergency Response Cache, and plans are in place to request additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, a severe pandemic would quickly outstrip the available supply. A severe pandemic would also result in a shortage of staff trained to operate ventilators, forcing hospitals to decide which patients will and will not be provided ventilator support. There must be clear guidance in place ahead of time to ensure that these decisions ultimately will be made in a way that is fair and equitable and will provide the greatest benefit to as many patients as possible.

Q: Why doesn't the State just stockpile as many ventilators as would be needed?

A: Although New York State continues to purchase and stockpile ventilators, we know that no matter how many ventilators are available overall, in a severe pandemic there will be shortages in individual facilities. This is because so many people will be sick at the same time. The ill will include healthcare workers, so there also will not be enough staff to provide the extra level of care for all patients who need ventilators. Undoubtedly, difficult decisions on ventilator allocation will need to be made. We must recognize this and plan for it.

Q: Who has recommended the proposed policy regarding the allocation of ventilators in a severe pandemic?

A: The proposed policy was developed following extensive deliberation by a panel of experts convened by the New York State Department of Health-affiliated Task Force on Life and the Law. This group considered issues posed by a severe influenza pandemic and the resulting shortage of critical medical equipment and supplies. The panel included experts in medical ethics, clinical medicine, healthcare preparedness and other disciplines relevant to a pandemic influenza response.

Q: Is the panel's recommendation final?

A: No. This is a proposed policy and will be revised based on public comment and additional information garnered from clinicians, healthcare facilities, and the community. There are no perfect answers in response to the immense challenges posed by a severe pandemic. That is the reason we are publicizing the proposed policy and asking for input.

Q: Isn't this really just a proposal to "ration" critical supplies?

A: The proposal is much broader than that. Although it would be necessary to triage patients to determine who would receive ventilators in a severe pandemic, the proposed policy provides a comprehensive blueprint aimed at accomplishment of several critical goals:

  • To respect the fundamental obligation of healthcare providers to care for patients.
  • To prevent inequities by devising a just system for rationing ventilators in a time of critical shortage.
  • To engage in clear, consistent communication among healthcare providers, patients and their families.

Q: When would this policy take effect?

A: This proposed policy for ventilator allocation would take effect in the setting of a severe pandemic if/when a point is reached where need significantly exceeds available equipment and staffing resources.

Q: What could facilities do to reduce the need for ventilators?

A: The proposed policy requires that a number of steps be taken if a severe pandemic is occurring:

  • Elective procedures should be canceled and/or postponed during the period of emergency.
  • Facilities should limit outpatient procedures, especially those that may require hospital admission and/or ventilator support if complications arise.
  • Facilities within a region should be encouraged to work out voluntary plans for loans of equipment and staff in a crisis.

However, in the event of a severe pandemic, even these measures would still fall short of addressing the anticipated need for ventilators.

Q: Would you take ventilators from one part of the State and send them somewhere else?

A: The proposed policy encourages hospitals within close geographic proximity to work together as much as possible to make optimal use of available ventilators. A decision whether to divert ventilators from one part of the State to another would be made based on the specific circumstances of the pandemic. However, in a severe pandemic it is likely that all regions of the State would be affected at some point. The policy anticipates that ultimately there would be shortages of ventilators throughout the State.

Q: How would the process of ventilator allocation triage be triggered?

A: A pandemic is likely to strike different areas of the state at different times; therefore, triage would be initiated in response to the specific circumstances of the outbreak. Facilities would be required to demonstrate that they had completed appropriate pre-triage requirements, such as decreasing the need for ventilators and increasing access to reserve ventilators. Once these steps were taken, a facility would require permission from the State to initiate the triage protocol. These same guidelines would apply to any facility in the State that required triage.

Q: Will patients with pandemic flu be treated differently from other patients?

A: No. All patients in acute care facilities would be equally subject to ventilator triage guidelines, regardless of their disease category or role in the community.

Q: Will health care workers or other first responders get first access to ventilators?

A: No. Other guidance documents recommend prioritized access for health care workers and others to vaccines and medicines that prevent influenza, to help protect these workers and keep them on the job. However, people who are sick enough to require ventilators are unlikely to return to work during the acute phase of the epidemic. Also, if ventilators are in very short supply, prioritizing all first responders might mean that no community members, including children, could gain access to ventilators. This guidance document recommends assessing all patients who require ventilators by health criteria only, regardless of job description.

Q: Who would make the decision to refuse ventilator support to a patient?

A: Hospitals will identify a process and will designate supervising physicians who will act as triage officers. These supervising physicians will take responsibility for triage decisions. Physicians providing individual patient care will not determine ventilator allocation.

Q: How can you guarantee that this system will be fair?

A: The proposed policy is specific about the circumstances under which a decision to withhold ventilator support would be made. It calls for clinicians to evaluate patients based on universally applied objective criteria. These include both inclusion criteria (factors that would make someone eligible for ventilator support) and exclusion criteria (factors that would result in a decision to withhold ventilator support). IN NO CIRCUMSTANCE will a decision be based on non-clinical factors such as race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, perceived quality of life or ability to pay.

Q: What are inclusion criteria for ventilator access?

A: In an overwhelming pandemic with a severe shortage of ventilators and staff to operate them, access to ventilators would depend only on clinical factors, primarily, which patients have the greatest medical need—and the best chance of survival—if they receive ventilator support.

Q: What are exclusion criteria for ventilator access?

A: Access to ventilators would be limited based on clinical factors that pose the highest probability of mortality, such as: cardiac arrest; end stage organ failure; severe irreversible neurologic condition with high risk of death; metastatic cancer with high risk of death. Age, non-life threatening disability and "social worth" are NOT exclusion criteria.

Q: Does this present a conflict of interest on the part of the patient's health care provider?

A: NO. Physicians would be expected to provide care, as always, and to put their patients' interests first. Physicians providing individual patient care will not determine ventilator allocation. A triage physician will make the decision about who will receive ventilator support. The policy states that these roles must be separate and distinct.

Q: How do these guidelines apply to persons on ventilators in chronic care facilities or the community setting?

A: These guidelines would apply only in an acute care setting (when patients are admitted to a hospital or treated in the emergency department). The guidelines would not cause patients in chronic care facilities to lose access to ventilators. If a ventilator-dependent individual required hospital care for an emergent medical condition, he/she would be evaluated based on the objective inclusion/exclusion criteria for ventilator allocation.

Q: What will you do for patients who are denied ventilators?

A: Palliative care will play a crucial role in providing comfort to patients, including those who do not receive ventilator treatment. The State Health Department is collaborating with the Hospice and Palliative Care Association to expand capacity to provide palliative care and bereavement counseling. Every effort will be made to keep patients comfortable. Patients will receive medications to treat pain and to reduce anxiety.

Q. Will there be an appeals process for ventilator allocation decisions?

A. Experts agree that review of allocation decisions during a pandemic is required to make sure that the process is followed consistently and fairly. However, there is disagreement over the feasibility of case-by-case appeals. Some experts argue that a group of health care workers should be available to review triage decisions when patients or families protest. Other experts find that case-by-case appeals will cause the system to fail. Ongoing review, perhaps every 24 hours, of the allocation process and its application, without individual case review, may be all that is possible under the circumstances. We specifically invite public comment on this issue.

Q: Will healthcare facilities and providers be shielded from liability if they follow this policy and deny ventilator support to some patients?

A: The proposed policy establishes a standard of care that healthcare facilities and providers would be expected to follow. This should provide some liability protection, though it is not a guarantee. Full protection can only be provided by legislation that covers individuals and facilities that follow the guidelines.

Q: Will this be a recommended policy or a regulation?

A: That remains to be determined. Input received during this comment period will help to inform that decision.

Q: Are any other states considering a similar policy?

A: Many states and various national professional organizations are working on recommendations for allocating ventilators and other components of mass casualty critical care. The challenges involved are enormous. The situation posed by a severe pandemic is, by definition, one in which resources of both people and equipment are insufficient to meet the needs for a limited period of time. In an overwhelming pandemic, more ventilators would be needed than could possibly be stockpiled. Even if a state could purchase and store the enormous number of ventilators required for a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 disaster, there would not be enough staff to operate them. Prudent planning can limit, but not prevent, loss of life in the face of such a mass disaster. The failure to plan will mean that more people will die than was necessary.

Q: When will this policy be finalized?

A: While it is crucial that we have a ventilator allocation policy in place before there is a need for triage, it is equally critical to develop the best possible policy. For that reason, we intend to collect extensive feedback on the proposed plan. Once the formal, 45 day, comment period has ended, input received from all sources will be assessed and the expert panel reconvened.

Q: What if I want to take my family member from our local community hospital to someplace else in the State where ventilators are more available?

A: The proposed policy does not address this issue. However, because of the nature of a pandemic—with extensive illness occurring in many places at one time—this is not likely to be a viable option. Even if some patients and families could leave the disaster area, an overwhelming pandemic would still require us to devise a plan for allocating ventilators where need overwhelms resources. More than likely, families will find the same circumstances waiting for them at their new location.

Q: Will I be able to take my family out of state for care?

A: The proposed policy does not address this issue. However, because of the nature of a pandemic—with extensive illness occurring in many places at one time—this is not likely to be a viable option. People would likely be too sick to be moved.  Also, other states are considering similar guidelines, and there is likely to eventually be federal guidance on this issue.