My Health Economics lectures are still pretty interesting, although my friend, Polly, is not exactly enthralled. What I've noticed is how terribly complicated the picture is becoming surrounding the allocation of resources fairly within the health system!
We've been looking at how Australian public hospitals "never say NO" to performing surgical procedures or somehow treating a person's problem regardless of age or disability. I already figured there must be a bit of "NO" going on, or the hospitals would be bulging with 95 year-olds having heart transplants! Yes indeed, there are some "NO"s emerging, much to the disgust of several students in the class. For instance- an Intensive Care Unit that does not admit anyone aged 90 plus. I had been mildly surprised when my friend E told me her 92 year old MIL was in a high-dependency ward but not ICU after she had a stroke which made her quite delusional and unable to talk coherently- obviously her age was excluding her from the top treatment category. I had already been privy to the fact that certain physicians at unnamed hospitals "pull the plug" on young male accident victims whose brain injuries appear irremediable after some days in ICU, but hadn't heard about anything else. The over-90 rule seems perfectly sensible to me, given the expense of ICU, the pressure on the beds from younger people with more prospect of recovery and the average lifespan being 79 (men) and 80 (women) in Australia. In my world-view, the 92 year old has indeed had a "fair innings" as the noted health economist, Alan Williams, might have said.
However, the question facing everyone in the health care profession (and facing us as students during a tutorial!) is: How mindful of public dollars should the bedside doctor or nurse really be?
Obviously there are views ranging from "Of course they should be- who pays them anyway!?" to "It is not ethical for doctors to consider costs when saving lives".
I am inclined to think that having regard for the probability of a good outcome given the investment of public dollars should be a routine consideration- something "trained for" in a medical education, not something that comes as a big surprise when doctors are questioned later about particular decisions. It would be good to see that consideration of the general cost to society built into the contracts or agreements that medical personnel work with. Just because lives are involved doesn't mean people should abandon the principle of general utility- as a public servant I couldn't order an antique oak desk for my office even if I was allergic to the laminate in the generally supplied ones!
Now the outlook has shifted along to the issue of how we rate someone's prospects of a good life following a medical treatment, vs. how much it is going to cost the public purse, and ultimately, the taxpayer. For this some fancy measurements have been invented such as the Quality Adjusted Life Year or QALY. Be ready for a rollercoaster ride when I get stuck into this little monster!