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Open Access Debate

One and done? Equality of opportunity and repeated access to scarce, indivisible medical resources

Marco D Huesch

Author Affiliations

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA

Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, Los Angeles, USA

BMC Medical Ethics 2012, 13:11  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-13-11

Published: 24 May 2012

Abstract

Background

Existing ethical guidelines recommend that, all else equal, past receipt of a medical resource (e.g. a scarce organ) should not be considered in current allocation decisions (e.g. a repeat transplantation).

Discussion

One stated reason for this ethical consensus is that formal theories of ethics and justice do not persuasively accept or reject repeated access to the same medical resources. Another is that restricting attention to past receipt of a particular medical resource seems arbitrary: why couldn’t one just as well, it is argued, consider receipt of other goods such as income or education? In consequence, simple allocation by lottery or first-come-first-served without consideration of any past receipt is thought to best afford equal opportunity, conditional on equal medical need.

There are three issues with this view that need to be addressed. First, public views and patient preferences are less ambiguous than formal theories of ethics. Empirical work shows strong preferences for fairness in health care that have not been taken into account: repeated access to resources has been perceived as unfair. Second, while difficult to consider receipt of many other prior resources including non-medical resources, this should not be used a motive for ignoring the receipt of any and all goods including the focal resource in question. Third, when all claimants to a scarce resource are equally deserving, then use of random allocation seems warranted. However, the converse is not true: mere use of a randomizer does not by itself make the merits of all claimants equal.

Summary

My conclusion is that not ignoring prior receipt of the same medical resource, and prioritizing those who have not previously had access to the medical resource in question, may be perceived as fairer and more equitable by society.