Why philosophical theorising about distributive justice in health care (mostly) doesn’t work

I had the pleasure yesterday at the IAB 2012 to see Daniel Wikler run a symposium on population level bioethics – which primarily focused on prioritisation decisions. This was useful for me since it helped me coalesce why I think many if not all attempts to give a philosophical account of distributive justice in health care (and perhaps more generally) are doomed to fail. The methodology that Wikler et al adopted was to give a variety of cases which were in his words designed to isolate one element of tension for example fair chances vs efficiency so that we could evaluate and become more clear about what we value and why.

Now I don’t want to suggest such an approach is worthless – I do think it can help clarify what we think is and isn’t important, clarify concepts and so on. However much of the content of the symposium was similar to a symposium run by Wikler et al at the 2006 IAB in Beijing and for those of us who had attended both there was a sense that things hadn’t moved on much since then. I say that with no disrespect intended to Wikler et al – distributive justice in health is notoriously had and intractable so a lack of much progress is no sign of a lack of quality.

One of the cases they pulled up was interesting because it was iterative in nature – in the first case you have enough money to either vaccinate the 800 people who live in the city or the 200 people who live in the mountains. The majority of the audience chose the obviously efficient option. Then more money becomes available and you can now either vaccinate the remaining 200 in the mountains against that disease or vaccinate the 800 in the city against a new equally nasty disease. In this case Wikler reported that the majority of people they show the case to want to vaccinate those missed out in the first round which is puzzling since it is basically the same decision as in the first case but the opposite option is selected.

I think this case is useful to point out some flaws in this methodology and indeed in many approaches to distributive justice in health care. Taking isolated one off cases is of limited use because they make health care decisions too easy, health care decision making is (as I’ve argued elsewhere) inherently iterative if we spend money now to save X then that is likely to generate more health care needs and hence costs from X in the future. Hence decision making in health care prioritisation is embedded in time, and cannot be easily separated from its downstream impacts. As I’ve argued here: in regards to new technology this is unhelpful as a way to approach impacts. As I’ve argued here in regards to new technology this is unhelpful as a way to approach thinking about distributive justice because it prioritises justice at a particular point in time rather than justice overall. This is thinking about healthcare in the wrong way, it is like trying to understand a 3d scene by looking at a 2d snapshot – you can get an idea of what is happening but certainly not a complete understanding.

So what is the way forward in philosophical thinking about distributive justice in health care? Unfortunately I don’t have much positive to say, it is a matter I think of trying to be sensitive to the complexities of the actuality of health care decision making and muddling through.