Can the traditional medical ethical prime directive of placing the individual patient's interest first survive in a financial environment in which physician autonomy is greatly diminished and income for most physicians is controlled by third party payers. More broadly put, Dr. Edmund D. Pellegrino asked in 1995 (JAMA,May 24/31,1995,Vol 273,no 20,) " Is medical ethics a social, historical, or economic artifact?Or are there some universal , enduring principles?
In 1988 Hall and Berenson writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine said that "the traditional ideal" was "not compatible with the role that existing insurance contracts and manged care arrangements define for physicians." Their comments were not subtle when they said :
We propose that devotion to the best interests of each individual be replaced with an ethic of devotion to the best interests of the group for which the physician is personally responsible.
Incredibly, the authors claimed that this shift in ethical focus would actually increase patient trust, an attribute that even in the late 80's was in a decline as patients tried to live (sometimes literally) with the HMO's restrictions to medical care. Incredibly, they claimed that by not having the patient's interest as the prime directive there would be increased trust in their physician.
The expected wave of letters to the Annals editors expressed the belief that advocacy for the individual patient was the prime directive and what it was all about and to replace it was to effectively do away with medical ethics as it had been known and practiced for a very long time. This is what would be expected from an audience of internists who had grown up medically inculcated with an ethic which was the polar opposite of what the authors proposed. Practicing internists at that time were reared to believe that the physician was completely and ultimately responsible for their patients.
The average practicing internist if they read the article at all may have thought this was the contrived advocacy of someone who was attempting to make manged care appear ethical. All that was required was to turn medical ethics on its head.When I read that article I thought "you've gotta to be kidding me".
A few years later ,I saw no one was kidding as the ACP, ABIM and the European Federation of Internal Medicine joined forces to formulate what was called the New Professionalism in which physicians were admonished to do more than maximize the health of all the patients in their HMO, which was as far as the Annals author went. Now, they had an ethical obligation to strive for Social Justice.This joint effort was said to be necessary as the "old ethic" needed to be revised to align itself with the new economic environment in which physicians now lived and "medicine's commitment to the patient was being challenged by external forces of change within our society".
While the 1988 article's authors stopped short of suggesting physicians should conserve resources for others in society at large and just concern themselves with their own HMO's population, the new ethics or professionalism as it was now called, headlined social justice raising it to the level of the big three ethical precepts-patient welfare, patient autonomy and social justice.More than one observer has asked does precept three conflict with precept one?
The era from 1963 to about 1990 has been termed the time of "retail medical care". Physicians and patients enjoyed the situation in which a patient's insurance followed the patient so that he could choose any physician and the physicians' fees were not set by the insurer but largely were set by what the physician considered and the payer agreed to be "reasonable,customary,and prevailing".
Things were good for physicians in those days as not only was physician autonomy largely unchallenged,but also Medicare has brought about a large influx of money to be spent largely at the discretion of the doctor and their patients and exciting new diagnostic and therapeutic tools were available. More could be done for your patients and more patients could afford medical care. Referrals could be based on the physician's knowledge of the area consultants and prescriptions were written without concern for some third party's list of permissible choices. But things were to soon change as the era of "wholesale medicine" replaced the old ways with the HMO being the middleman.
A series of articles was published in 1995 in JAMA authored by Dr. David Eddy that discussed the metrics and merits of decision analysis which he hailed to be the mechanism to perform magic. The magic was to increase quality of medical care while reducing cost. But it was all merely playing with words and defining words to suit the argument. Eddy defined quality as the greatest medical good for the greatest number within the eco-medical collective (aka HMO). It did not go unnoticed to the skeptical reader that Dr. Eddy listed his affiliation as "Kaiser Permanente of Southern California")
Pellegrino in 1995 also asked ...can physicians change the ethics of the profession at will ( as proposed by Berenson and Hall) or is there a more fundamental and universal foundation for the ethics of medicine in the special nature of the physician-patient relationship?
Pellegrino's quotes are found in an article entitled "Guarding the Integrity of Medical Ethics-Some Lessons from Soviet Russia" . The subversion of medical ethics in Russia suggested to Pellegrino two lessons. 1) corruption will afflict any health system not designed with care of the patient as the its primary driving force. 2) medical ethics must be independent of political exigency. "... a morally responsive profession is an indispensable safeguard for the sick against the statistical morality of utilitarian politics, even in democracies."
The statistical morality of utilitarian analysis seems to be increasingly unopposed as the group outcome analysis derived data plays an increasingly large role in the decisions regarding the individual patient exhibited in part as guidelines executed by mid level practitioners. In this new day, the physician has more to worry about that just her patient, she must be concerned for everyone but at least she has been removed from the impossible role of being responsible for every aspect of his patient's well being as she is now (merely) a member of a team and part of a system of health care.