Pay to Play – Cost Containment by Ethics Committees

The Los Angeles Daily News, July 11, 2009, wrote, “One doctor, who chairs the Northridge Hospital Ethics Committee, did raise the important and relevant issue of excessive, costly, end-of-life care that has no potential for significantly extending life. If consumers had to pay a significant copayment, they might not demand unreasonable or unadvisable care."

If this physician actually said this, of which I am doubtful, then it must be pointed out that a decision to terminate life sustaining treatment based on or informed by economic considerations is unethical and of great concern. Discussions of terminating life sustaining treatment must be grounded in evidence of the patent’s intent, degree of suffering, quality of life, etc., but certainly not by demanding payment from people to persuade them to stop medical treatment and die.

Bioethics deals with the application of ethical and legal principles in medicine, not economic expediency. Physicians, and ethics committees across the nation struggle to understand each patients needs and wishes: what dignity means to them,– their religious, ethnic and racial points of view – their fears, mistrust and sometimes misplaced trust which may result from the undue influence of family, friends, business associates and others. As the California Court of Appeals wrote: “…the decision must ultimately belong to the one whose life is in issue.”

There are many people who appropriately face the economic realities of everyday hospital services. Reducing medical costs, oversight of physician owned hospitals who often generate higher costs due to the ordering of tests which have an economic benefit for the physicians ordering the tests, defensive medicine, reducing medical errors that result in serious injury and run up unnecessary medical costs, sometimes for patients who will need specialized medical care for the rest of their lives.

But, it is not for the chair of an ethics committee to declare what life is worthy of receiving life sustaining care based upon economic principles. Physicians and ethics committees must deal with the individual patient, one patient at a time.


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