Ethics, pandemics, and the duty to treat

Heidi Malm, Thomas May, Leslie P. Francis, Saad B. Omer, Daniel Salmon, Robert Hood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Numerous grounds have been offered for the view that healthcare workers have a duty to treat, including expressed consent, implied consent, special training, reciprocity (also called the social contract view), and professional oaths and codes. Quite often, however, these grounds are simply asserted without being adequately defended or without the defenses being critically evaluated. This essay aims to help remedy that problem by providing a critical examination of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these five grounds for asserting that healthcare workers have a duty to treat, especially as that duty would arise in the context of an infectious disease pandemic. Ultimately, it argues that none of the defenses is currently sufficient to ground the kind of duty that would be needed in a pandemic. It concludes by sketching some practical recommendations in that regard.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4-19
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Journal of Bioethics
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2008



  • AIDS
  • Bioterrorism
  • Moral theory
  • Philosophy
  • Professional ethics
  • Public health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects

Cite this

Malm, H., May, T., Francis, L. P., Omer, S. B., Salmon, D., & Hood, R. (2008). Ethics, pandemics, and the duty to treat. American Journal of Bioethics, 8(8), 4-19.