Detroit Bankruptcy Requires Life Support

The Trade-Offs of Prolonging Life

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jan 21, 2014    •    1608 Views

From guest blogger, Mariana Do Carmo, student at Yale University.

What if prolonging life results in prolonging not only your suffering but also that of others?

The recent development of universal health care in the United States will make it possible for more patients to have access to the health care resources they need. But because there is a limited budget for health care, we need to think deeply about how to distribute those resources.

The trade-offs that result from implementing treatments that prolong life are complex and wide in scope. From the perspective of the families of dying patients, it is impossible to let a loved one go and, by refusing any sort of medical treatment that could keep the person around for a little longer, one is failing, and in effect, allowing that person to die. However, the cost of keeping the person alive, oftentimes with futile techniques such as inserting feeding tubes and keeping the person connected to a ventilator after brain death, impacts not just the family but society as well.

According to an online article published by The Hastings Center, “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimates that 5% of the beneficiaries who die each year take up 30% of the $446-billion annual Medicare budget. About 80% of that money is spent during the final month… More often than not, the aggressive steps taken to save someone’s life are futile.” And yet, a growing minority of people believe everything should be done to save a patient. Do we have an ethical dilemma between what people want and what society can afford?

Opportunity Cost of Prolonging Life Pew Research

Thinking of the tradeoffs that economists ask us to recognize, what opportunity cost are we willing to sacrifice?  Would it not make more sense both economically and bioethically to allocate medical resources to those who have a chance of living longer and healthier lives?

Sources and Resources: The Hasting Center’s statistics on the cost of prolonging life can be found in this article while for personal stories/recent case studies related to prolonging life and universal health care, click here, here, here and here. For some information on the healthcare ethics of these treatments, check out this site and the entire Pew Research study is here.



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