The ethical dilemmas of critical care specialists encountered in the admission of patients with HIV infection to intensive care.
South Africa has one of the fastest growing HIV epidemics in the world with 5.6 million people living with HIV/AIDS. As a consequence of the delayed implementation of the ARV rollout and failure to control the epidemic, the number of people living with HIV/AIDS who seek or need intensive care places a huge burden on precious, expensive and sparse intensive care unit facilities. Critical care specialists are faced with complex challenges when making decisions about the provision of such care. Aim: The aim of the study was to develop best practice criteria for admitting HIV-infected patients to intensive care. Methods: The study was done utilising: 1. A comprehensive literature review of the legal and ethical framework governing such decisions in South Africa and compared with that in different countries, both developed and developing. Further, legal precedents and clinical best practice that could inform policy and practice in South Africa were applied to the decision making process. 2. An audit of ICU beds in South Africa by first making a comprehensive and contemporary review of critical care facilities in South Africa, to place in context the ethical dilemmas faced by critical care specialists in the admission of HIV/AIDS infected patients to intensive care in a resource limited environment. 3. Critical care practitioners’ response to a standardised questionnaire regarding ethical decisions and provision of intensive care to five hypothetical clinical case scenarios. Results: The study showed that: The ICU bed availability in South Africa is limited and the problem is worse in the public sector with widespread variations across the provinces. The lack of skilled staff for ICU is insufficient for our needs in the public sector. For people living with HIV/AIDS, specific variables influence their survival in intensive care. The benefits of anti-retroviral treatment in intensive care are still being debated. Clinical prediction tools should be considered as an aid to clinical judgment on decisions about whom to admit to intensive care. Rational decision making should include central questions such as ‘ whether the patient too ill or too well for ICU care’ and whether there is a reasonable prospect of ‘reversibility of organ-dysfunction’? Non-invasive ventilation using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilation mask is showing promise for patients with Pneumocystis jeroveci pneumonia (PJP), especially in a resource-constrained environment. Further studies need to validate this. People living with HIV/AIDS are not discriminated against on admissions to ICU and are not subjected to medical futility decisions. Discussion: The shortage of ICU beds results in critical care specialists being under pressure to deliberate on resource allocation decisions for competing patients. Strong regulatory and ethical frameworks exist to protect the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and access to intensive care. The ‘Limitation Clause’ of the South African Constitution, as canvassed by the courts resulting in the refusal of renal dialysis in the case of Mr. Subramoney, a utilitarian judgment, would not be justiciable for people living with HIV/AIDS and access to intensive care. The National Health Insurance Plan envisages making more ICU beds available through a public-private sector partnership. There is a compelling need for regionalisation of intensive care services in the country. Respiratory failure in HIV/AIDS patients remains the commonest indication for intensive care unit admissions, and other diagnosis such as non-PCP pneumonia, sepsis, cardiac, gastrointestinal, and renal diseases, are becoming more common. The ART era has seen an improvement in ICU to ward survival rates of 70% (similar to that of the general medical population) as well as the three month and long-term survival outcomes post-ICU discharge. ICU prognostic systems should be regarded as an aid to clinical judgment. Daniels ‘accountability for reasonableness’ provides a moral framework for ethical decision-making and priority setting. In its determined efforts to control the pandemic of HIV/AIDS, some countries, notably Botswana and South Africa are accused of violating international treaties. Conclusion: South Africa has made many legal provisions to protect the rights of its HIV infected patients. People living with HIV/AIDS are neither discriminated against in admission to intensive care units, nor being subjected to medical futility decisions. With the advent of HAART, people living with HIV/AIDS admitted to ICUs, have similar outcomes to that of the general population. Admission guidelines for ICU as advised by the professional bodies for use by the general population should be equally applicable to people living with HIV/AIDS, i.e. is the patient too ill or too well to warrant ICU admission, and is there a realistic prospective of 'reversibility of organ dysfunction'?