Page 40

not providing them with essential personal protective equipment. Historical lessons offer insight into this ethical conundrum. For example, the history of secular medical ethics reveals that the medical community has never come to a consensus on the nature and scope of its responsibilities during an epidemic. The lack of consensus may be due in part to the fact that medical ethics are embedded in various broader social and cultural fabrics. Jewish law supports the view that a person is obligated to save another, though there are situations in which the dangers or risks are so high that these moral obligations are not mandatory. Rabbinical scholars have concluded that physicians have an extra obligation to heal the sick and are expected to accept a greater degree of risk than nonphysicians, due to their training and nature of their work. Yet they must also be prudent in their obligation to protect their families. Interestingly, rabbinical scholars maintain that treating COVID-19 patients is not mandatory but is considered to be a great act of compassionate professionalism and is highly praiseworthy. We believe that the question of whether health care workers must risk their lives to treat COVID-19 patients does not have one uniform answer. We do believe that health care workers who specialize in infectious disease or respiratory medicine have a greater responsibility to treat COVID-19 patients than health care workers in other subspecialties of medicine. Moreover, most, but not all, health care workers have a professional obligation to provide some medical service during this pandemic. Society, however, should be understanding of those health care workers who may defer their medical responsibilities because of their own personal health risks or extenuating family responsibilities. While it is important for physicians and other health care workers to explore and come to terms with their moral and legal obligations to care for patients with COVID-19, this will not be our last pandemic. That is why it is essential to incorporate these issues into the medical and health science educational curricula and get students thinking about them early. Professional education should help students — and practicing health care workers — learn how to balance their health risks with the immediate benefits to individual patients and the capacity to care for patients in the future. The moral obligation, the courage, the compassion, and even the heroism of millions of clinicians on the front lines are what professionalism is all about. As appeared in STAT on July 24, 2020.

38