Benefit vs. social responsibility: a profound ethical dilemma in medicine today

Brilinta, at $6.50 per pill, twice a day, reduces cardiovascular events more than generic Plavix, which costs 50 cents per pill, once a day. But only a little: 20% relative or 2% absolute risk reduction. The event risk was 10% with the more expensive drug and 12% with the one that costs 82% less.

Put differently, if 100 patients were treated with Brilinta for a year, at a cost of $4,680 for each patient, ten patients would still have an event. With clopidogrel, 100 patients, each one at a cost of $180, 12 events would occur. That means two fewer events would happen per 100 patients on Brilinta at an extra cost of $450,000, or $225,000 per avoided cardiovascular emergency (number needed to treat, NNT=50).

This is described in a New York Times article as a profound ethical dilemma in medicine today:

Some of us believed that a doctor’s job is to deliver the best possible care, period. Others argued that doctors should aim to find some balance between medical benefit, financial cost, and social responsibility. It’s the kind of question that we aren’t really trained to solve. Are costs something that an individual doctor should do something about? What is a doctor supposed to do?

As a Swedish born and trained physician, even though I now work in the United States, I guess I would claim that I was trained to solve this kind of question. Therein lies the fundamental dilemma of American medicine.

The American ethic of wanting to do absolutely everything possible for each patient has its roots in a different era from the one we live in now. It is a relic of a time when diagnostic tests, surgical interventions or medicines for everyday diseases didn’t cost multiples of average people’s annual incomes. It also came about in he era before the government (Medicare and Medicaid) or risk pools of ordinary people (insurance companies, in stewardship of employers’ and wage earners’ premiums) became the payers of health care expenses. Back then, patients paid for their own health care, or it was offered as more or less charity care.

Americans don’t like to use the term socialized medicine, but that is what it works like when someone else pays for our care. We may use different words, like socially responsible medicine. But “social” is part of it.

If I had just survived a heart attack and had a choice between clopidogrel and Brilinta, would my choice be different if I had to pay an extra $4,500 per year myself than if I could have someone else pay for it?

Would the latter choice possibly deprive other people of medicines, surgeries or vaccines they needed because of the vast number of people making the same choice at their fellow citizens’ expense?

Would my choice indirectly be someone else’s death sentence? All for a jump from an 88% chance of me being OK to a 90% chance? I could get the more expensive drug and make bad dietary choices, or forget a dose here and there and the nuance in efficacy between the two drugs might be moot — but certainly not the cost differential.

The operative word here, in English, is stewardship. I can’t even remember what it is in Swedish: Spending resources wisely, especially when those resources belong to all of us.

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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