Rationing “scarce medical resources” and lying to the patient – do these go hand in hand?

Rationing “scarce medical resources” and lying to the patient – do these go hand in hand?


Claudia Ruiz M.D • I don’t think so, I’m from Mexico, and I have worked plenty with the mayan communities, they really don’t have any acces to medicines o medical attention. We did our best to get them what they need, but sometimes it is impossible. Anyways, I never lie to my patients, they deserve to know the truth always. Maybe it is a different situation in the United States and the HMOs, but in principle, I don’t think it is ethical to lie and withhold information to people, specially if that information is for the best of the patient.     

Henry Levenson,M.D. • No, rationing health care does not equal lying to patients. It is better to explain to the best of your ability why referrals were declined or not authorized. Patients seem to assume that physicians are responsible for the reasons why health care is rationed.

M. Sara Rosenthal • In the U.S., rationing is usually not done according to an ethical framework (such as beneficence); it is usually done according to “ability to pay”: if we were transparent about THAT — we wouldn’t have opposition to universal healthcare in the U.S. by the very people who could benefit from it. Transparency about access is really the issue.

Bernard Freedman, JD, MPH • Follow up Comment: Rationing : Withholding Medical Care by Lying to the Patient 

”Rationing” of medical care and “triage” are different. 

Triage prioritizes the use of limited medical resources when sufficient resources are not available. 

Rationing is the withholding of available care for political/economic reasons. 
With respect to rationing, therefore, it must be decided whether or not the patient is going to be told the truth. 

The ethical question here is whether patients must be told that medical care is being withheld, or if a standard practice will sanction lying to their faces. 
In his book “Pricing Life” Dr. Peter Ubel provides us with his definition of rationing. He says that the clinician must, 
(1) Withhold, withdraw or fail to recommend a service that, in the clinician’s best judgment, is in the patient’s best medical interests; 
(2) Act primarily to promote the financial interest of someone other than the patient, including an organization, society at large, or the clinician himself or herself, and 
(3) Have control over the use of the medically beneficial service” (Pricing Life – why it is time for health care rationing, Peter A. Ubel, M.D., MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2000). 
The phrase “withhold, withdraw or fail to recommend” defines rationing as outright dishonesty with the patient – violative of the legally required fiduciary role in physician-patient relationships. 
So, I agree with Dr. Rosenthal that, indeed, transparency is the real issue


Marie Cartwright • Withholding, withdrawing or failing to recommend a service does not imply, in any way, dishonesty. It rather describes an informed attitude a physician will take towards a patient regarding a particular procedure and their candidacy for that procedure. A physician, for instance, can withhold a procedure from a patient while still being honest about the reasons for doing so, and rightly so. 

In the UK, for instance, candidates for hip replacement surgeries are (or were several years ago) denied the surgery until they brought their BMIs down to a healthy level. In other words, obese candidates were denied hip replacements based solely on their weight. I initially struggled with this particular topic because it seemed to have a tone of infinite regression- patients who required hip replacements would have a much easier time reaching a healthy weight if they had a healthy hip! However, if the supply is far less than the demand, we must also take into account that obese patients who received a hip replacement would also probably need another replacement sooner than those within a healthy weight range. 

In terms of honestly, however, the patient-doctor relationship cannot exist without trust. Lying should never be present, under any circumstances.


Bernard Freedman, JD, MPH • Thanks for the discussion. This is a growing quandary that calls for clarity from medical, ethical and public policy points of view. There is a difference between withholding or withdrawing efficacious treatment and telling a patient what you are doing and why, and “failing to recommend” an efficacious treatment and keeping it a secret under the guise of having what you call an “informed attitude.” So, I must ask, what is it that informs a physician’s attitude that justifies keeping the decision hidden? In other words lying to the person you have the highest duty to be honest with. Yet, you say in the next sentence of your comment that it is ok to” withhold the treatment while still being honest about the reasons for doing so.” I am unclear whether you are really saying that withholding the truth, lying, is acceptable. 
You give the example of the obese patient who needs a hip replacement but is denied the surgery unless he or she loses the weight. The denial may be justified, but is the patient told the reason for the denial? Do you tell your patient that they must lose weight before the hip replacement will be permitted? Of course, I believe, you do. Otherwise there would be no incentive for the patient to lose the weight. 
It is the trust aspect, the moral imperative of truth telling between physician and patient that is, I believe, at risk when rationing truly scarce resources.

Marie Cartwright • I think we are on the same page in many respects here. But, if I may clarify a possible misunderstanding- You said, “So, I must ask, what is it that informs a physician’s attitude that justifies keeping the decision hidden?” I definitely didn’t intend to imply that physicians should keep their decisions, or reasons for their decisions, hidden. I believe quite the opposite. By informed attitude, I meant to refer to the physicians as “gatekeepers” who decide who can have what procedure, and when, and their decisions, or attitudes, are informed by factors solely about the patient. Physicians, after all, are the experts that we rely upon to help us better our health and in some circumstances, “save” us. In essence, and hopefully to answer your question, withholding a treatment and withholding the truth are two entirely different things. In my previous comment, I said that withholding a particular treatment is in no way dishonest. However, withholding a treatment without justifying or explaining it to the patient goes against the patient-doctor relationship and also is counter productive for any patient’s treatment. 

Regarding the hip replacement patients, I believe the the denial must, in all situations, be explained to the patient. I don’t really believe that truth telling is at risk in any situation, much less the rationing situation. A patient must be told why he/she is no longer a candidate for a particular procedure. Even when supply is scarce, to be dishonest serves no purpose.

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