Pulitzer Prize-winner puts spotlight on medical ethics

5 Oct 2016

Dr Sheri Fink, Pulitzer Prize-winning author on medical ethics. Image: Jen Dessinger via Sheri Fink/Facebook

New York Times journalist and author Sheri Fink spoke at DCU this week about the ethics of healthcare in disasters. Claire O’Connell reports.

If you had 50 patients in an intensive care unit, but flood damage left only six electrical sockets working, how would you decide who gets power to the machines keeping them alive?

Or, if you needed to evacuate an entire hospital full of patients, staff and visitors one helicopter-load at a time, who gets to go first and who goes last?

And if you are a doctor fleeing from immediate danger, should you put your own life at extreme risk in order to stop and help someone else?

Those were some of the thorny and real ethical dilemmas that medically trained journalist Dr Sheri Fink described at a conference in Dublin City University (DCU) earlier this week.

‘I think emergencies are laboratories for medical ethics’

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Learning about ethics

Speaking at the Cost Action Conference on Disaster Bioethics, Fink spoke about how we can and should learn from the ethical dilemmas that present themselves under extreme circumstances, such as an outbreak of Ebola; an extreme storm, flood or earthquake; or treating casualties in a conflict zone.

“I think emergencies are laboratories for medical ethics,” she said. “There is always this question of resource distribution and which ethical frameworks we use.”

She also stressed the importance of research into healthcare delivery in times of extreme crisis, describing “almost an ethical duty to come out of a crisis with information we can use to do better next time”.

Dr Sheri Fink recently discussed her investigation into medical ethics decisions during Hurricane Katrina on the Radiolab podcast

Up close

Fink is no stranger to getting up close to people and situations in crisis healthcare. She has written about war-torn Bosnia, reported on the medical response after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and chronicled responses to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, for which she and colleagues earned the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

In 2010, Fink also won the Pulitzer Prize for her investigative report, ‘The Deadly Choices at Memorial’, published by The New York Times Magazine, which examined how patients, staff and visitors were evacuated from the Memorial Medical Center in Katrina-stricken New Orleans. That story is the subject of her 2013 book, the New York Times bestseller Five Days At Memorial.

At DCU, Fink discussed not only the decisions and actions taken at the medical centre in that intense period during Katrina, but also the creativity involved in finding alternatives to helicopter evacuation, such as airboats, and the relatively high numbers of deaths that occurred there during that time.

Share the knowledge

Earlier in the day, the New York Times correspondent spoke to journalism students in DCU, who took to Twitter to share the wisdom they were learning:

Back at the disaster bioethics conference, Fink commented that in some cases, the first responders in an emergency are not medically trained, and that we need a broader discussion of ethics in society.

She rounded off with words of insight from her reporting on ethical decisions in healthcare: prepare to be flexible, share the burden of decision-making and act for tomorrow.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication