Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Medical care and airlines - should there be a difference?

A recent article by Pauline Chen features a group of primary care physicians at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, who have created a concierge practice that funnels income into the traditional general medical practice that sees less-advantaged patients. Surveys (performed by the medical center itself) found that patients rated the quality of interactions with their doctors similarly regardless of their affiliation. The only significant differences in responses had to do with the services offered — care coordination, physician access and interactions with office staff. According to the medical director, analogous to airline services providing both first class and coach services, the parallel practice gets patients to the same destination - some eating peanuts, others eating caviar.

I believe this is an intelligent hybrid that may have successfully reacted to our broken medical system, but the ends does not justify the means. Differing services based on the ability to pay is discrimination - it is demoralizing for coach flyers, but morally wrong for economically-disadvantaged patients. This is because medical care is not the same type of services as airlines - people will not die if they cannot fly to places, but they will die without medical care.

In a civilized society, its members should have equal access to life-saving services regardless of the ability to pay. Just like the fire department, medical care should be provided as a societal safety net so that, instead of worrying whether our house will burn down while we're off at work or whether a catastrophic illness will take away everything we've worked hard to earn, we can focus on higher pursuits like being a productive member of society.

Differences in health outcomes between two groups remain unclear. If they are unequal, then there is discrimination based on the ability to pay. If they are equal, then first-class patients pay more money without justifiable returns other than convenience and a more pleasant office staff, which I argue should not be different in any circumstances - I'd like to believe that medical professionals treat fellow human beings in sickness with utmost compassion at all times, regardless of payment scheme.

Either way, segregating patient care leaves a bad taste in my mouth. As a doctor, we ask patients to trust us with personal life stories that they may never share with their parents or their significant others. Such level of trust can hardly be established in the settings of discrimination.