Measuring the value of life
Within the fevered haze of this past year, many stories highlighting grim realities have captured the media spotlight. From individuals unable to have emergency evaluations because of facilities being inundated by COVID-19 patients to individuals prematurely discharged, hospital bed shortages, and financial pressures from insurance companies. In reciting the phrase “Primum non noncere,” we physicians are committing to providing fair and competent medical treatment. At times, urgent decisions are necessary but are always made in the best interest of the patient(s). Ultimately, I am left debating how these agonizing weeks served any meaningful purpose. Moreover, when choosing the many over the few, what are the determinant factors? I am left asking: What is the value of a life?
Philosophically, this ethical dilemma is captured succinctly via the “,” formulated in 1967 by Philippa Foot, MD. This is how Dr. Foot’s formulation unfolds: Close your eyes, and imagine you are inside a trolley careening unhindered down the rumbling tracks. Straight ahead you see five people bound to the tracks in imminent danger of being struck, and on the other side, one person is tied to the tracks. Do you continue the same course – thereby condemning five innocent people to death – or do you make the active decision to switch tracks, therefore consigning the one to their fate? Envision the people what do they look like? How old are they? If the one were a small child or a close friend, would that alter your decision? How does one make such a harrowing choice knowing the irreversible consequences? Depending on your action, this quandary falls within two primary schools of thought: Utilitarianism, which posits that the best action is the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and deontologicalism, which suggests that action is inherently right or wrong regardless of the consequences. Therefore, the decision to save the five is not favored.
However simplistic those scenarios may read, such principles when viewed through different lenses, they form the basis of medical ethics. In effect, every acute decision, every aspect of treatment is predicated upon the principles of nonmaleficence, beneficence, utility, distributive justice, and autonomy. Yet, the manner in which they are applied is highly contingent upon myriad variables. For example, sociopolitical factors, including population size (rural versus urban), economics (impoverished versus wealthy), as well as demographic factors (age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality) can highly influence and sometimes unknowingly influence interpretation and allocation of health care resources. This dilemma does not yield easily applicable and universal solutions. Nevertheless, it is paramount to evaluate policies effectively and tediously, particularly those with detrimental ramifications. Likewise, remaining flexible in our willingness to explore alternative solutions and encourage open discord among those with opposing viewpoints is key to instituting individual or institutional change that values the one as it values the many.
After several weeks of acute illness and a variety of short-acting interventions, I received approval to resume intravenous therapy. While the saga has ultimately reached a satisfactory conclusion, I am left with stupefied disbelief toward the people who took a gamble on my health. I am facing a battle between understanding the obligation of medicine to provide ethical and reasonable care without hesitation or judgment versus embittered resentment when faced with those who openly campaign against lifesaving interventions, such as the COVID-19 vaccine. For me, each day and the one that follows is riddled with complicated emotion. Every time I prematurely cease activity out of discomfort and weariness, I worry about my increasingly foreboding workload. In those moments, in that place of questions without answers, I remember that someone somewhere ultimately decided to switch the trolley’s track.
Dr. Thomas is a board-certified adult psychiatrist with interests in chronic illness, women’s behavioral health, and minority mental health. She currently practices in North Kingstown and East Providence, R.I. Dr. Thomas has no conflicts of interest.