Prehospital and Disaster Medicine

Original Research

Ethical Issues in Disasters

Fatimah Lateefa1 c1

a1 Senior Consultant, Emergency Medicine and Trauma, Director of Undergraduate Training and Education, Department of Emergency Medicine, Singapore General Hospital; Senior Clinical Lecturer, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, Senior Part-Time Lecturer, School of Health Sciences, Nanyang Polytechnic, Singapore


A disaster is a situation that overwhelms the local population’s capacity to respond, thus necessitating a request for assistance from outside the impacted area. In these circumstances, needs usually outweigh resources. The objective of response is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people (the utilitarian principle). As such, some unique ethical considerations will arise that are not seen in day-to-day practice.

The adoption of medical ethics principles is important in such situations, but certain provisions must be accepted. In large-scale, complex disasters, it may be impossible to provide optimal care to each patient. This paper will discuss some of the challenges for healthcare personnel at “ground zero”, how training in preventive ethics may help, and what principles can be applied when working in disaster-affected areas or when responding to disasters.

(Received March 05 2010)

(Accepted May 10 2010)

(Revised October 21 2010)


c1 Correspondence: Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef Dept of Emergency Medicine Singapore General Hospital 1 Hospital Drive Outram Road Singapore 169608 E-mail:


Lateef F: Ethical issues in disasters. Prehosp Disaster Med 2011;26(4):1–4.