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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Victor Fuchs solves the "doctor's dilemma"-appropriate care is cost effective and ethical too

Victor R. Fuchs,Economics Professor Emeritus at Stanford, wrote a Perspective commentary in the August 18,2011 Issue of the New England Journal of Medicine entitled: The Doctor's Dilemma-What is "Appropriate" Care ?

The dilemma he describes is the following;

"How can a commitment to cost-effective care ( as physicians have been "committed" to that since the Physician charter and the New Professionalism) be reconciled with a fundamental principle of primacy of patient welfare"

Fuchs tell the readers if all the physicians in a given health care collective practice (as in HMOs and now Accountable care Organizations) cost effective medicine the resources saved can be used for the benefit of the defined population which includes the patients of the physician who seemingly may face a conflict. So, if all the physicians act in the same way all patients benefit.

I believe Fuchs conflates the good of group as indicated by some aggregate number with the good of each individual in a particular situation in which a particular individual may not enjoy the benefit and may actually be harmed. In fact cost effectiveness analysis involves aggregate data. With any outcome in a group some may benefit some may be harmed.

In his closing paragraph, Fuchs tells us that when a physician works in a health care collective in which there is a fixed annual budget the physician resolves the dilemma by favoring the cost effective option. This according to Fuchs become "appropriate". ( Why does Fuchs use quotes marks?) So,the cost effective choice is the appropriate choice and also the ethical one. It is ethical in the moral calculus of Kant "because if all physicians act the same way,all patients benefit" .

The basis of Kant's ethical precepts was the categorical imperative which is:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can,at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

In other words, a person acts morally when he acts as if that conduct were establishing a universal law governing others in a similar situation.

I find it interesting and puzzling that Fuchs uses a Kantian based ethical argument to support cost effectiveness based decisions in health care as cost effectiveness analysis is typically justified using a consequentialist type argument. Philosophical support for the notion of resource allocation based on the best bang for the buck is supplied by this outcome based school of ethics.

Kantian ethics, on the other hand, is duty or rule based ,an approach called deontological in the literature of ethics.Kant believed that the individual should be considered an end in himself not as a means to an end. In the medical collective the individual's interests are subjugated to the aggregated good of the group;the individual functioning as a means to achieve the greater good of the collective whether or not a particular member of the collective enjoys the benefit.

In the moral conflict between the physician's fiduciary duty to do what is right for the individual patient and the imperative to serve the best interests ( by what ever aggregate parameter that is being used) of the group as a whole, would not Kantian rule-duty based ethics support the rule of do what is best for your patient and patient is a singular noun. If Fuchs is suggesting that cost effectiveness analysis should be determinative in medical decisions and that it is justified by Kantian ethics, I suppose the "rule" would be always do what is cost effective.Never mind that pesky notion of a person being considered an end in himself and not as a means.

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