Monday, January 24, 2011

Why home-based primary care is needed

A doctor posed this question in the ethics column in the New York Times magazine yesterday:

My elderly aunt became ill and phoned me, a physician, to ask if she should call an ambulance. I surmised that she was severely dehydrated. From my hospital, I took a bag of saline, IV tubing, an IV lock and a needle. An unsuspecting nurse handed me the tape that secures the needle. I gave my aunt these fluids at home, and she soon felt better, as did I: my stealing $50 worth of medical supplies saved the taxpayers more than a thousand dollars for an E.R. visit. Did I do right? E.G., NEW YORK

The ethicist, Randy Cohen, replied in part:

I should offer a word in your defense from another doctor, Paul R. Marantz, director of the Center for Public Health Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who acknowledged that what you did was stealing, but said in an e-mail that “purloining $50 (more likely $20) worth of medical supplies while saving hundreds (more likely thousands) seems a good choice compared with the more burdensome alternative of a visit to the E.R.” I agree that those who practice medicine in imperfect institutions might — must — sometimes choose imperfect actions, but believe that your supply-room raid still fell short.

Here's a great example of a case where home-based primary care practices can make a big impact. If a system were in place that allowed for sending a primary care nurse to the woman's home, the entire ethical problem could have been avoided.

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