A Two-Component Ethics Approach for Triage to Epilepsy Monitoring Units

Jason Randhawa, MD
Neuroethics Canada Blog

Electroencephalographic (EEG) monitoring provides critical diagnostic and management information about patients with epilepsy and seizure mimics. Admission to an epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU) is the gold standard for such monitoring in major medical facilities worldwide. In many countries, however, access is challenged by limited resources compared to need. Triaging EMU admission in these circumstances is generally approached by unwritten protocols that vary by institution. In the absence of explicit guidance, decisions can be ethically taxing and are easy to dispute.

Drawing upon the limited triage literature from neurology and then moreso from various areas of medicine more broadly, my mentors and I developed an ethically-grounded two-component approach to EMU triage (Randhawa et al., under revision, 2021). The strategic component identifies three targets to guide improvements in EMU wait list infrastructure at the institutional level: (1) accountability to patients and public to foster transparency, (2) engagement of clinicians and administrators to achieve process improvements, and (3) empowerment of waitlist managers to promote active waitlist management strategies (see Figure).

The principled component applies an essential balance of three key moral philosophies to triage at the patient level. First, prioritarianism promotes the needs of the most ill, defined by seizure frequency and severity; however, it may also include subjective measures such as suffering. Second, utilitarianism maximizes the overall utility of resources, promoting the greatest benefits for the most people. If patients are having frequent seizures, they are more likely to benefit from EMU evaluation (utility) and are considered sicker (priority); therefore, these first two ethics principles work together. The principle of justice promotes equality by considering other relevant contextual factors such as patient’s ability to self-advocate and length of wait. This principle provides further refinement to the triage process. For example, patients who are disabled by frequent seizures may be unable to advocate for themselves to obtain a sooner admission despite the high utility and priority. As such, justice provides further impetus for accelerated admission.

These principles will be weighted differently depending on several contextual factors, such as the availability of adequate resources: high-resource settings favor prioritarianism; low-resource settings favor utilitarianism. Other factors affecting the use of these principles include patient and public values, clinician preferences, and objective metrics available to guide these decisions.

The approach we propose can inform site-specific process improvements and further revisions based on data generated at individual institutions. While much work remains to be done to explore and test implementation of the model, it provides a starting point in transforming implicit thinking about ethically-fraught circumstances related to EMUs into explicitly principled ones.

Acknowledgements to my research mentors Drs. Chantelle Hrazdil, Patrick McDonald, and Judy Illes for their substantial contributions. This work was supported in part by the UBC Faculty of Medicine, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, and NIH/NIMH #RF1#MH117805 01.

Jason Randhawa, MD, is a Neurology Resident Research Assistant at Neuroethics Canada. He is a senior neurology resident based out of Vancouver General Hospital and St. Paul’s Hospital at the University of British Columbia.

Conference Announcement: Brain Matters II

Just received the following announcement from Dr. Barbara Russell, bioethicist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and coordinator of the Canadian Bioethics Society Neuroethics Interest group.  It has just been announced that the Brain Matters neuroethics conference will be held in Montreal in the spring of 2011. The theme of Brain Matters II appears to have a clinical ethics focus. The first Brain Matters conference occurred September 2009 in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was a great success. Looking forward to the call for abstracts and seeing who the organizers secure for the plenaries.


BRAIN MATTERS II: Ethics in the Translation of Neuroscience Research to Psychiatric and Neurological Care

Montreal, Quebec, Canada

May 26-27 2011

Call for abstracts forthcoming. For more information, please contact: neuroethics@ircm.qc.ca


Peter Reiner and I wrote a post on our reflections of the first Brain Matters conference: Brain Matters

Brain Matters: New Directions in Neuroethics from Dalhousie’s Novel Tech Ethics website.

IRCM Neuroethics Research Unit