I could soon be the physician following a policy that determines who would be denied medical care. At the same time, I could be one of those forbidden care if I needed it. Medical leaders in Washington state quietly debated a plan to decide who gets care when hospitals fill up. Not many details are out, but the arguments echo a similar discussion in Italy, where an intensive care unit protocol withheld life-saving care from certain people. The rejected were those older than 80 or who had a Charlson comorbidity index of five or more. With my diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, I score six!
When I read the news, I was morally troubled, enraged and mortified.
I am in the same boat as many colleagues who have health issues or are older and could be asked to return from work accommodation or retirement to help out. Are we asking individuals to risk their lives, but refuse them treatment if they get sick?
I am not familiar with empirical, objective evidence to support setting a threshold for who should or should not receive care as a way to improve outcomes for a community. Research to answer such an empirical question would have been unethical to start with. Using such a strategy also misuses predictive tools.
Age or the Charlson comorbidity index can help give an estimate of prognosis. But they cannot tell us how an individual person would fare in response to treatment for this novel disease. And if we want to decide who receives care, how can we forget about functional status, quality of life and the person’s values and preferences?
Besides, the risk of eroding people’s trust is intolerable. The last thing we want is for people to lose confidence that they will be treated fairly just because of their health conditions or age.
This is not the story we want to leave for history. And who said that an order from a health authority takes the moral burden off your shoulders? Have we forgiven the doctors in Nazi Germany who experimented with vulnerable patients? Worse than doing what is unjust is not standing up to advocate for the vulnerable. What will be remembered is that we pacified our consciences with a piece of paper we called a “policy.”
We can do better.
Restricting people from accessing care is not the only strategy. We can continue to shift resources to optimize the work. For example, a generalist can lighten the load for the specialist. A well-trained practitioner can supervise a less-trained one.
If we think we cannot save everyone, let’s invite people to have conversations about death and dying. Patients and their primary care doctors should discuss advanced directives. People could even embrace death with dignity if they live in a state that allows it.
I can make the choice to not live and forfeit my right to care. But that right cannot be taken away from me. Age or health conditions cannot alter a person’s entitlement.
We can trust doctors’ abilities to make the right moral decision, and we can give them the authority and support in so doing. In today’s hypercomplex context, medical doctors should be competent to manage, case-by-case, and situation-by-situation.
Yes, it will be a difficult time. When a decision has to be made between two lives, we regret having to make the decision, and we express our deep sadness. We should not make such unfortunate decisions a norm, and we should not write a policy to make it OK. It is not OK, and it will never be.
The health care system has a terrible track record of failing various marginalized groups. We also have a good track record of providing exceptional care to people. Let’s take the opportunity to do it right this time and not miss our chance, because a perceived failure of the public’s trust will take decades to regain.
Morhaf Al Achkar is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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