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Emergency department triage: an ethical analysis

DOI: 10.1186/1471-227x-11-16

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In emergency department triage, medical care might lead to adverse consequences like delay in providing care, compromise in privacy and confidentiality, poor physician-patient communication, failing to provide the necessary care altogether, or even having to decide whose life to save when not everyone can be saved. These consequences challenge the ethical quality of emergency care. This article provides an ethical analysis of "routine" emergency department triage. The four principles of biomedical ethics - viz. respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice provide the starting point and help us to identify the ethical challenges of emergency department triage. However, they do not offer a comprehensive ethical view. To address the ethical issues of emergency department triage from a more comprehensive ethical view, the care ethics perspective offers additional insights.We integrate the results from the analysis using four principles of biomedical ethics into care ethics perspective on triage and propose an integrated clinically and ethically based framework of emergency department triage planning, as seen from a comprehensive ethics perspective that incorporates both the principles-based and care-oriented approach.Emergency care is one of the most sensitive areas of health care. This sensitivity is commonly based on a combination of factors such as urgency and crowding [1]. Urgency of care results from a combination of physical and psychological distress, which appears in all emergency situations in which a sudden, unexpected, agonizing and at times life threatening condition leads a patient to the emergency department (ED).The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) defines ED overcrowding as the situation where ED function is impeded primarily because the number of patients waiting to be seen, undergoing assessment and treatment, or waiting to leave exceeds the physical and/or staffing capacity of the ED [2]. ED overcrowding is a common


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