Health Care

Categorized Priority Systems: A New Tool for Fairly Allocating Scarce Medical Resources in the Face of Profound Social Inequities

Peer-reviewed Publication

Tayfun Sönmez, Parag A. Pathak, M. Utku Ünver, Govind Persad, Robert D. Truog, Douglas B. White

March 2021

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has motivated medical ethicists and several task forces to revisit or issue new guidelines on allocating scarce medical resources. Such guidelines are relevant for the allocation of scarce therapeutics and vaccines and for allocation of ICU beds, ventilators, and other life-sustaining treatments or potentially scarce interventions. Principles underlying these guidelines, like saving the most lives, mitigating disparities, reciprocity to those who assume additional risk (eg, essential workers and clinical trial participants), and equal access may compete with one another. We propose the use of a “categorized priority system” (also known as a “reserve system”) as an improvement over existing allocation methods, particularly because it may be able to achieve disparity mitigation better than other methods.