Blog | Monday, December 5, 2011

When rationing health care resources goes too far

A sure-to-be controversial article appears in the Chicago Tribune earlier this asking the sensitive question of "Health care at any age, any cost?"

"If you want to save all lives, you're in trouble," said Callahan, co-founder of The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in New York, and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, in an interview. "And if you want to save all lives at any cost, you're really in trouble."

Callahan and co-author Nuland, a retired professor of surgery at Yale School of Medicine who wrote the best-selling "How We Die," were both 80 when the article was published.

"We need to stop thinking of medicine as an all-out war against death, because death always wins," said Callahan.

The article goes on the make some bold demands of doctors:

That said, McKoy believes doctors have a responsibility to spend medical resources where they do the greatest good. They must police themselves--otherwise, the government will come in and do it for them, she warns.

This is not easy, she said, describing the tremendous pressure doctors are under to perform procedures and prescribe medicine that will not help. And, she said, they often give in.

"We get selfish families, and it's often easier for doctors to pull out prescription pads," she said. "Doctors need more often to say no, to say (if a patient is dying): 'We will give you palliative care, but not give you chemotherapy. We will not give you new expensive drugs because it will not make you better.'"

Likewise, medical schools also need to train students to understand the cost-effectiveness of treatments, and to administer them based on medical research into their effectiveness--not just because they are available.

While I agree that the doctors on the ground should be making these decisions, I, too, have problems with a central regulator imposing a random age limit where all services to functional seniors stop. More importantly, this article ignores another reality for doctors who must make these difficult decisions: the nearly unlimited liability exposure if the family members disagree with all members of the health care team, including hospital ethics panels.

It's good we're having this discussion. And yes, since doctors are increasingly employed by hospital systems eager to fund their operations, pressure continues to mount on proceduralists to offer newer and advanced therapies to patients. But it's not all about the money. There really are wonderful therapies out there for seniors these days and, thanks to the virtually unlimited marketing of them to elders (especially via direct-to-consumer advertising) seniors will continue to demand them. Adding fuel to the procedural fire, lack of liability protections for health care facilities and doctors who opt not to treat a patient for some very good reasons will further add pressure on doctors and hospitals.

Once again, because of special interest resistance to malpractice reform, centralized government control will become the default option.

And maybe, just maybe, we need to rethink our stand on direct-to-consumer advertising of expensive medications to the populace on the nightly news.

This post by Westby Fisher, MD, appeared at Get Better Health, a network of popular health bloggers brought together by Val Jones, MD. Better Health's mission is to support and promote health care professional bloggers, provide insightful and trustworthy health commentary, and help to inform health policy makers about the provider point of view on health care reform, science, research and patient care.