Tulips photograph by Lara de Long, New York
University School of Medicine
Grahic Jump Location
Pressure to reduce total health care expenditures in the United States
has intensified. Despite a contracting health care budget that has sensitized
society to the issues of resource allocation, the demand for the health care
dollar has continued to expand. The disciplines of economics and bioethics
have each outlined strategies to mitigate this conflict. Yet because of divergent
core preferences, the proposed strategies are discordant. Whereas economics
is chiefly concerned with the quantitative analysis of the production, distribution,
and consumption of goods and services—an approach that often creates
value-loaded trade-offs—bioethics often addresses the variance among
competing values without accounting for resource scarcity.1
When the overall priority is to decrease monetary costs, selecting the most
desirable way to allocate resources depends on which values are assumed to
be paramount.2 If we are to develop morally
acceptable principles for allocating scarce resources, the two approaches
must reach a concordance.
Decisions regarding the delivery of health care at the end of life underscore
the inherent conflict between economics and bioethics. Many argue that because
10% to 12% of all health care expenditures and 27% of Medicare expenditures
are spent at the end of life,3 and because
these expenditures frequently fail to provide significant health benefits,
the elimination of such care would make resources available for other unmet
needs. Opponents counter that cost savings projected from reduced care at
the end of life are illusory,4 and that
such reductions in care breach the maxim that the least advantaged should
be accorded the maximum benefit from an unequal distribution of any primary
good.5 Rationing itself is not denounced
as ethically unacceptable, so long as the deprivation of goods is egalitarian.
This attitude contrasts with British National Health Service guidelines that
explicitly refuse specific health care services to persons because of advanced
This month, MSJAMA considers how economics
and bioethics can reconcile in order to generate strategies for delivering
care at the end of life. Because the United States accords no general legal
right to health care, health care at the end of life, extensive or minimal,
is a moral claim. However, structuring resources according to a population-based
health approach, and forgoing care of marginal benefit, would potentially
achieve greater utility. But to apply a policy of rationing to persons at
the end of life—the necessary consequence of a population-based approach—is
inconsistent with many principles of social justice.1
As cost pressures continue to conflict with accepted ethical standards, medical
students and physicians, as patient advocates, will be required to examine
death more broadly, and pursue constructs outside the biological sciences.
Health care faces 2 large problems that will in the future force consideration
of some difficult questions about the nature of medicine and health care.
The first concerns "marginal benefits," which affect the care of all patients.
How shall we manage and allocate the growing number of expensive treatments
and pharmaceuticals that provide only limited benefits? The second problem
concerns health care for the elderly and the financial crisis the federal
Medicare program is expected to undergo as the baby boom generation retires.
These 2 issues are connected because health care for the elderly, particularly
those over age 85, is marginal in the sense that life expectancy is relatively
short thereafter, even if a particular intervention is successful by a particular
A number of proposals in recent years have attempted to deal with this
dual problem. One proposal argues for increasing and improving outcome assessment
and evidence-based medicine to better determine what is and is not beneficial
to patients.1 This approach, however, does
not resolve ethical dilemmas over health care allocation, such as whether
to spend money on expensive treatments with a low probability of succeeding
(eg, bone marrow transplants). Another proposal is to reduce the notoriously
high costs of end-of-life care by a combination of outcome assessment studies
and an expanded and improved use of hospice programs and advance directives.2
The key issue for the future is whether this society will continue its
present course of using more marginally beneficial technologies to improve
health care for the elderly—refusing, in effect, to accept the historical
decline in health associated with aging—or whether society will take
a population-based approach by putting more resources into improving health
in younger years and thus increasing the likelihood of better health in later
years. Examples of the latter might include working with health promotion
and disease prevention programs to reduce illness and disability prior to
Only the latter course seems based in common sense. Trying to cope with
the inevitably expanding health needs of the elderly by means of ever more
expensive technologies with marginal health benefits to the population as
a whole makes little economic sense. Conversely, to think that we can manage
growing costs through cost reductions at the end of life and greater application
of evidence-based medicine is far too optimistic.
My pessimism regarding the possibility of achieving a technical correction
through outcome assessment studies runs counter to prevailing sentiments within
US medicine. One reason for this pessimism is that the pharmaceutical and
medical manufacturing industries are endlessly adept at developing new technologies,
hardly any of them curative and most of them expensive. US physicians, with
the eager support of their patients and sometimes the reluctant assent of
HMOs, are ready to adopt these technologies. War has been declared against
death and its historical ally, aging.
Are there any means to make a population health perspective more attractive
to society? Three attitudinal changes would have to occur. First, there must
be, at some point, a limit on the amount of money deemed worth spending on
marginal medical improvements—a point where the price is too high for
too little return. The second is to persuade the public that a population-based
approach appears to produce not simply a less expensive way of dealing with
health and illness, but overall improved health for most, though not all,
individuals. The third change is the most radical, at least for this culture.
We must accept old age and death as part of the course of human life and settle
for the more modest goal of a decent average life expectancy of, say, 80 years3 and a good quality of life before that point.
In the search for a biological map, which many would call "reductionist,"
to better health in the future, current research emphasizes the genetic roots
of disease. Although this may be a scientifically sound research strategy,
it is not clear that it will result in more affordable medicine in the future.
A population health strategy could, conceivably, produce comparable success
at a more affordable price. Some marginal benefits might be lost, additional
people might die, and others might have a lessened quality of life. But we
could have a more realistic and economically sustainable kind of health care:
in my view, a splendid trade-off.
Information about the contest can be found online at http://www.ama-assn.org/sci-pubs/msjama/index.htm.
People are living longer with fewer disabilities.1
Technological changes are partly responsible for this phenomenon, yet new
technology is often costly, and many interventions at the end of life seem
wasteful. Given rising health care costs and projected Medicare deficits,
end-of-life care is a possible target for expenditure reduction.2
If such expenditures are limited, there might be decreased pressure to restrict
other health care spending. Alternatively, end-of-life savings could go toward
expanding Medicare benefits, such as those covering prescription drugs.
Much discussion about end-of-life care focuses on private interactions
among patients, caregivers, and physicians. Because of financial incentives,
lack of knowledge, or poor communication with patients and families, physicians
may not make appropriate care decisions. Even if such decisions reflect patient
and family preferences, viewed from a collective perspective, there may be
better ways to deploy resources currently spent on end-of-life care.
Given the social norm to honor patient and family preferences concerning
end-of-life care, many issues remain unresolved. Theoretically, decisions
regarding preferred care may be clear, but practically those decisions only
come after the fact. Many patients fear the dying process and the burden on
their families even more than death itself.3
Patients' levels of consciousness and ability to communicate during the 3
days before death vary by medical condition.3- 4
In addition, little is known about patients' and families' preferences
for care at the end of life. Do care preferences remain stable, or do they
depend on where one is on the life spectrum? How often do the preferences
of patients and family members differ,4
and how are such differences resolved? How well informed are persons involved
about treatment options, especially for palliative care administered near
the end of life?
Although there is a positive correlation between the care preferences
of patients and their physicians, there is much to be learned about interactions
between patients, caregivers, and physicians.5
Lack of knowledge among physicians about treatment options and legal and regulatory
requirements, such as regulations on pain-prescribing practices, may impede
provision of appropriate care.6 Hospital
payment policies favoring rapid discharge may discourage physicians from providing
palliative care. The relative importance of these factors in the larger picture
of end-of-life care is unknown.
Impending death is an important predictor of health care spending,7 but this effect is smaller for the oldest people
approaching death and greater for those younger. This suggests the advisability
of a pattern of less aggressive care when the possibility of life extension
and quality of life enhancement lessens, but no study to date has quantified
the amount of nonbeneficial care actually provided to persons near death.
The role of insurance is complex. When Medicare and other insurers cover
end-of-life care, more such care will be demanded, both beneficial and nonbeneficial.
Much of the beneficial care is likely to be supportive. If not financed by
insurers, the cost of such care is borne by families. The public policy issue
here is not whether such care will be provided, but who should pay. Should
cost be spread among members of society or borne by families? Chronic and
terminal illnesses have substantial financial consequences on families.8 Unlike other unequally distributed hazards, such
as house fires or car thefts, we all face death, implying that some collective
judgments about such care are appropriate. The guidelines should partly depend
on effectiveness parameters, but there is also the normative issue of how
much good outcomes are worth, and how this calculus is modified by age. Such
guidelines will be hard to develop since much aggressive care will appear
to have been nonbeneficial only after death; the perspective is often quite
Resources not devoted to health care may satisfy other societal objectives.
The percent of health care cost attributable to end-of-life care has been
remarkably stable over time.7 Projected
savings from greater use of advance directives, hospice care, and less aggressive
treatments have been estimated at 3.3% for total health care and 6.1% for
Medicare spending.2 These reductions are
programmatic and exclude increases in the cost of care borne by families.
At current rates of increase, a 6.1% reduction would offset 1 to 2 years'
increase in Medicare program costs, a very partial antidote to forecasted
Policies to improve the provision of end-of-life care would only offer
minimal promise for cost containment. Greater savings could undoubtedly be
achieved by imposing severe budgetary or capacity constraints on the financing
and provision of care.2 But, a focus on
rationing care for persons at the end of life would be widely viewed as inequitable.
US residents do not have a legal right to the care that they would like
to have at the end of life. They do not have the legal right to demand expensive
life-extending care, despite limited prospects of success; nor do they have
the legal right to expect even minimal comfort care. In the United States
there exists no general legal right to end-of-life care, extensive or minimal,
just as there is no general legal right to health care. There are exceptions
to these assertions; specific groups such as the elderly, the disabled, the
poor, the imprisoned, or those with end-stage renal disease, may, because
of their legal status or health condition, have been granted limited rights
to health care. The right to health care at the end of life is thus a complex
picture, and addressing the issue comprehensively requires a basic understanding
of the nature of rights and the structure of a federalist legal system.
Rights may be either positive or negative. A positive, or welfare, right
would be the right to actually receive care. A negative right, or right of
noninterference, would be the right not to encounter barriers in seeking care.
Unlike most other advanced industrialized nations, the United States does
not have a tradition of legally recognizing general welfare rights. Positive
rights, therefore, exist only within limited circumstances.
Although the US Constitution does not grant any general welfare rights,
there is one health care exception. Prisoners have the right under the 8th
Amendment not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment; this right
is violated when incarcerated people do not receive adequate health care.1
Federal statutes extend some additional positive rights in the health
care arena. Individuals over the age of 65 who qualify for Social Security,
permanently disabled persons, and those with end-stage renal disease are entitled
to Medicare funding.2 But Medicare has coverage
limitations. It does not cover experimental care or care that is not deemed
reasonably medically necessary. New life-extending therapies, such as autologous
stem cell transplants for multiple myeloma, may not be covered by Medicare.3 Medicaid, a federal program that extends health
care dollars to state programs for the poor, also provides some coverage for
end-of-life care. Approximately 30% of Medicaid funds are spent on care for
the impoverished elderly, although only 11.9% of Medicaid recipients are over
age 65.4 In addition, the Emergency Medical
Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) is a federal statute that was enacted
to prevent patient dumping.5 EMTALA requires
facilities receiving federal funds and operating an emergency department to
provide appropriate medical screening examinations and temporary and necessary
stabilizing care. In some circumstances, courts have held that the stabilizing
care required may be quite extensive, but it does not extend to longer-term
modes of care, such as chemotherapy.6
The US Constitution assures negative rights of nondiscrimination and
of liberty that are relevant to health care. The 14th Amendment prohibits
states from depriving citizens of equal legal protection. Therefore, state
institutions or agencies may not discriminate in providing end-of-life care
on the basis of race, nor can they ration care in a manner that fails equal
Several recent decisions of the US Supreme Court have explored the protection
of patient liberties under the 14th Amendment's due process clause. The decision
in Cruzan v Director, Missouri Department of Health
assumed that competent patients have the right to refuse care and indicated
that states may not unduly burden patients' efforts to extend that liberty
through advanced-care planning.7 In Compassion in Dying v Washington8
and Vacco v Quill,9
however, the Supreme Court refused to extend constitutionally protected liberty
to aid in dying. Several justices did nonetheless suggest that they would
extend protection to adequate palliative care.
Within limits set by the US Constitution or federal statutes, states
also may extend legal protection to citizens' liberty to seek out end-of-life
care. States may also extend some rights to care itself through mandated benefits,
state medical emergency funds, or state analogs to EMTALA. State constitutions
or statutes may protect more extensive liberty rights or antidiscrimination
rights than the federal constitution. For example, state intractable-pain
statutes protect physicians who follow medically acceptable forms of aggressive
pain management. Perhaps the most controversial state initiative is Oregon
Measure 16, which protects physicians who write prescriptions intended for
aid in dying, in accord with prescribed safeguards.10
Thus in the United States today, rights to end-of-life care are limited
and highly variable. A patient may have a status such as imprisonment, a condition
such as end-stage renal disease, or a state residency that brings with it
legal claims to care. More likely, a patient will only receive legal protection
preventing interference with the health care that she or he is otherwise fortunate
enough to be able to access.
Context In November 1994, Oregon became the
first US state to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) as an option for
Objective This study compares the attitudes
and experiences of medical students in Oregon regarding PAS to those of fourth-year
medical students in the United States outside Oregon.
Design A survey of all students at the Oregon
Health Sciences University and fourth-year medical students at 3 non-Oregonian
US medical schools.
Participants Oregon medical students returned
227 questionnaires (58%), and 113 were returned from control schools (33%).
Results A similar percentage of both study
groups favored the legalization of PAS (64% vs 66%; P
= .74). If the practice were legal, 55% of the total surveyed reported they
"might be willing to write a lethal prescription," (50% Oregon students vs
60% control; P = .13 and 44% fourth-year Oregon students
vs 60% control; P = .04). Among fourth-year students,
20% reported a request by a patient to the student or a preceptor for a lethal
prescription in the past year (26% vs 16%; P = .09).
Conclusions This study demonstrates support
for and willingness by many medical students to participate in PAS. Some medical
students reported observation of PAS during their training experience. Fourth-year
Oregon students reported significantly less willingness than other students
to provide a patient with a lethal prescription, perhaps indicating hesitancy
to include PAS in clinical practice.
In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted
suicide (PAS) with passage of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act1
and today remains the only US state in which PAS is legal. To assess the attitudes
of Oregon physicians toward euthanasia and PAS, a questionnaire was developed
by the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) Center for Ethics in Health
Care and sent to Oregon physicians in 1995.2
Results of this study demonstrated widespread support for the law, and since
its passage many physicians have participated in PAS.3
Additional studies have consistently demonstrated that a large percentage
of physicians support PAS.4- 10
Most US medical schools now specifically address end-of-life care in their
planned curriculum, and several organizations are developing and disseminating
physician education programs to improve end-of-life care.
The current study compares the attitudes and experiences of Oregon medical
students regarding PAS to a sample of non-Oregon US medical students. Additionally,
fourth-year Oregon students were compared to first-, second-, and third-year
Oregon students with less clinical experience. These comparisons demonstrate
differences in attitudes that may exist between students who face a real possibility
of providing PAS in the immediate future and students for whom PAS is less
likely to be an issue in practice or is less commonly addressed in clinical
All students at the Oregon Health Sciences University, the only school
of medicine in Oregon, received a previously developed, anonymous 54-item
questionnaire2 in their campus mailbox.
The same questionnaire was sent to fourth-year medical students at 3 other
medical schools chosen through a stratified randomization process, 1 each
from the midwestern, southeastern, and northeastern regions of the United
States. This study design was chosen to compare the attitudes and experiences
of students in a state in which PAS is legal to those of students in states
in which PAS is not legal. Questionnaires were returned in provided, self-addressed,
stamped envelopes. No incentive was offered for participation. OHSU students
were given 3 formal, written reminders to increase response rate. Students
at the control schools received only the initial envelope.
The questions included in this student questionnaire were similar to
those in the original questionnaire2 and
assessed basic demographic information, general attitudes toward PAS, and
actual clinical experience with PAS issues. Two questions from the original
questionnaire were excluded because they applied only to practicing physicians;
several questions were edited to address students more appropriately. The
OHSU Human Subjects Committee and the original questionnaire's authors approved
the revised questionnaire.
Participating schools approved student participation. Confidentiality
was ensured by the use of an anonymous questionnaire returned in a sealed
envelope. As envelopes arrived at the collection office, the signed consent
form and questionnaire were immediately separated, and student participation
was tracked by crossing each student's name off a class list using the signed
consent form. The database therefore contained no markers identifying students.
Data were analyzed using SPSS (Version 6.1, SPSS, Inc). Three study
groups were identified: control students; OHSU fourth-year students; and OHSU
first-, second-, and third-year students. Comparisons were all Oregon students
vs non-Oregon students; fourth-year Oregon students vs controls; and fourth-year
Oregon students vs first-, second-, and third-year Oregon students. Continuous
variables were analyzed using t tests and categorical
variables were analyzed with the χ2 test. Correction for multiple
comparisons was not used.
Of the 399 questionnaires administered to Oregon students, 227 were
returned (58%). Of the 340 questionnaires administered to control students,
113 were returned (33%). The final study group consisted of 51% male students
with a median age of 28. All groups were similar in gender, specialty preference,
religion, or experience in caring for terminally ill patients, but fourth-year
Oregon students, compared to controls and first- through third-year Oregon
students, were older and less likely to have attended high school in a large
city (P = .02; P = .005).
Compared to the control students, the combined group of Oregon students was
younger (P<0.001), more likely to project entering
primary care (P = .03), less likely to report any
religious affiliation (P<.001), and reported less
experience caring for terminally ill patients (P<.001).
Oregon and non-Oregon students were equally likely to find that PAS
should be legal in some situations (P = .74) and
if legal, 52% of students from Oregon (52% vs 60%) reported that they "might
be willing to assist a patient by writing a lethal prescription." Fourth-year
Oregon students were significantly less likely than non-Oregon fourth years
to report a willingness to provide a patient with a lethal prescription (44%
vs 60%; P = .04) and were also less likely to report
this willingness than other Oregon students in earlier stages of medical school
(44% vs 55%; P = .14).
More Oregon fourth-year students (26% vs 16%) reported a request by
a patient in the previous year to themselves or their immediate preceptor
for a lethal prescription (P = .09). Students from
Oregon were equally as likely as controls to comply with these requests (P = .93).
In this small sample, a large percentage of US medical students feel
that PAS should be legal and report willingness to practice PAS, if it were
legalized. Previous administration of this survey to Oregon physicians demonstrated
that 60% felt that PAS should be legal in some cases,2
a figure similar to the 65% found for all medical students in this study.
Interestingly, the group least willing to write a lethal prescription was
fourth-year Oregon medical students (44%). This result is similar to that
previously found for practicing Oregon physicians (46%)2
and much lower than this study's results for non-Oregon fourth-year medical
students (60%) and younger Oregon students (55%). Nationwide, 36% of physicians
would be willing to write a lethal prescription.4
The significant difference between fourth-year Oregon students and the other
study groups may indicate that a change in willingness to comply occurs when
a person is faced with actually writing lethal prescriptions. In addition,
the "end-of-life" curriculum for Oregon students includes added emphasis on
alternative approaches to end-of-life care, perhaps leading fourth-year Oregon
students to believe that compliance with a request for PAS could be unnecessary.
Regarding requests for lethal prescriptions, 18% of physicians nationally3 and 21% of Oregon physicians have received such
a request.2 These findings are similar to
the 20% of fourth-year students in this sample reporting such a request, to
either themselves or their immediate preceptor. Compliance with a request
was observed by 6% of fourth-year medical students (of those reporting a request),
comparable to the 7% among Oregon physicians2
(before passage of the ballot measure) and lower than the 16% found nationally.3 The finding that a similar percentage of US physicians
receive requests for lethal prescriptions may be an indicator of similarity
in the quality of end-of-life care provided throughout the United States or
of similarity in patients' attitudes toward this option.
Limitations of this study include a low return rate and return bias.
Return bias could have resulted because participating schools restricted the
issuance of reminders. These restrictions also made it difficult to assess
the number of students who actually received the survey. Because of the low
response rate of the controls, these results might not be representative.
Nonetheless, this study provides insight into the attitudes of some medical
students toward PAS. More than 60% of medical students surveyed feel that
PAS should be legal in some situations and comment that they would be willing
to participate in this practice if it were legal.
Acknowledgment: We would like to acknowledge
the OHSU Center for Ethics in Health Care for their work in the development
of the questionnaire used in this study.
Country-Specific Mortality and Growth Failure in Infancy and Yound Children and
Association With Material Stature
Use interactive graphics and maps to view and sort country-specific infant and early
dhildhood mortality and growth failure data and their association with maternal
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