Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Ethics Man

When can doctors stay away?

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 16 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b165
  1. Daniel K Sokol, lecturer in medical ethics and law, St George’s, University of London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}

    It is worrying that many frontline clinicians haven’t been consulted over their duty of care should a flu epidemic occur

    Ebola haemorrhagic fever is an acute viral disease with a mortality rate ranging from 25% to 90%. First reported in 1976, the disease continues to claim victims in Africa, most recently in January in the Democratic Republic of Congo. No cure or vaccine exists. When I studied the history of the disease in 2001 I was surprised to find that, time and time again, healthcare workers fled the scene of epidemics, leaving dying patients behind. I was then a historian rather than an ethicist and did not dwell on the morality of this practice.

    In July 2003 I visited Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada, at a time when people were still dying from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The fear was palpable. On the corridor walls, posters praised the work of the hospital’s “heroes.” Some clinicians, however, did not show up for work, and colleagues accused the absentees of failing to discharge their “duty of care.” On that same trip, my mentor, Kerry Bowman, recounted …

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