Meeting the ethical challenges of a pandemic

By Anthony Gooley, 24 June 2020
Image: Ali Yahya/Unsplash.


Catholic hospitals and aged care providers have confronted significant ethical challenges during the pandemic. At the start of the crisis they prepared to be overwhelmed by infections and had to work out ethical ways of deciding who would get what treatment and when.

During lockdown of aged care facilities, providers had to wrestle with the dilemma of how to preserve PPE (personal protective equipment) which was in short supply. These facilities also had to consider how to allow dying residents the comfort of a close relative by their side. In the future, medical practitioners may face questions about who gets vaccinated and when, as supplies may be limited at first.

Many doctors and nurses on the front line of health care had to wrestle with these ethical questions in preparing for the worst. For many, this additional training in ethics has actually sparked a hunger to learn more about Catholic ethical principles. An emergency specialist at one hospital commented that he was intrigued by how subtle and reasonable Catholic ethical principles were and that having completed just half a day training made him want to learn more.

We are fortunate that the Catholic health and aged care sector can draw on a rich history of reflection on difficult questions. A robust tradition based on reason is accompanied by a rational analysis that provides a framework for such reflection. Specialist ethicists can draw on sources from Scripture and two thousand years of engagement of the Church with life’s big questions.

Some of our Catholic health and aged care providers can call on expert opinion from moral theologians and ethicists within their own organisations to help guide them through difficult times. Doctors, nurses, researchers and hospital administrators, often call upon these experts to help them navigate difficult questions.

The Code of Ethical Standards for Catholic Health and Aged Care provides the basic ethical framework to negotiate difficult questions. However most staff working in Catholic hospitals and aged care do not have the expertise in ethics to understand and integrate the principles of the code without some assistance and education in ethics.

Larger Catholic hospitals often have teams of people dedicated to the training of staff in the Code, but many do not. Staff in hospitals and aged care services often need to supplement their training with short non-accredited courses in ethics to help bridge the gap in understanding. One of the ways staff are supported to develop their understanding is through an online course developed by Catholic Health Australia and BBI – The Australian Institute of Theological Education.

The course, Decoding the Code, is staged over a four-month period and includes eight online video sessions. Participants learn to understand and appreciate the Code of Ethical Standards, and decode what it all means. Apart from watching a group of experts decode the code, the only other commitments are fortnightly readings and sharing some thoughts via discussion board.

“The knowledge that I have gained through doing this course at the start of my career in health care will prove invaluable,” said Rebecca, a Director of Mission Integration in a large regional hospital.

The problems raised by the pandemic and in some States the challenges posed by physician assisted suicide or voluntary assisted dying, has made many staff in Catholic hospitals and aged care acutely aware of how valuable some training in ethics can be.

A large number of staff from Catholic hospitals and aged care have already completed the course since 2015 including hospital CEO’s, directors of clinical medicine, nurse unit managers, directors of mission, chief financial officers, and pastoral care staff. There is now increasing interest from those in clinical roles and research in hospitals.

It is strange to think of how many good things came out of a pandemic. The forced exposure to Catholic ethical principles for staff in health and aged care have created a desire to want to learn more. Isolation and having to rely on the internet has created a greater degree of comfort with online learning. Let’s hope some other good things stay with us too.

Enrolments have already be received for the next Decoding the Code program which will commence August 24, this year. Anyone who wants to enrol in Decoding the Code can do so online at BBI- The Australian Institute of Theological Education by clicking on the link.

Anthony Gooley is the Manager of Mission Services, Catholic Health Australia.


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