Tag Archives: transplant tourism

Justice in Healthcare: Bedside Rationing

Justice in healthcare is a substantial part of ethics in medicine, here we will cover some of the distinctive aspects of justice-based concerns and some basic ethics language to help wade through these interesting ethical issues.

READ: this short piece by Dr. Jonsen and Dr. Edwards goes into some detail about resource allocation in the medical setting.

GOAL: Familiarize yourself with some of the basics of resource allocation in the medical setting.

REVIEW THIS CASE: (full article is not required and only linked for reference) from Satel and Aronson (2008) “Transplant Tourism: Treating Patients when They Return to the U.S.” American Medical Association Journal of Ethics 10(5):271-277.

Now start to apply what you’ve learned. This reading provides some preliminary perspectives on a case of transplant tourism. This is just one among many forms of distributive justice where we see the ethical tensions in rationing at the bedside.  As you read consider:

  • What does bedside rationing mean in this case?
  • What is the central ethical question the physician faces in this case?
  • What do you think should be done?

Mr. Lawrence, a 50-year-old man with diabetes, is on dialysis for chronic renal failure and on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Because he is in relatively good health, he is low on the list. His physicians advise him that he could be on the list for up to 3 years and that his health during that time would not be jeopardized, aside from the risks and inconveniences associated with long-term dialysis. Mr. Lawrence is divorced and on bad terms with his ex-wife; he has no children and has contacted his sister and her family to see if any of them could be a living donor. His sister is obese, at risk for diabetes, and is not a suitable donor candidate; no other family members or friends are willing to consider donating a kidney to Mr. Lawrence.

Unable to find a living donor and dismayed at the thought of remaining on dialysis for years, Mr. Lawrence decided to use his financial resources to purchase a kidney and undergo a transplant in China. He spent 2 months in China after the surgery, where he was cared for by a local transplant team that provided postoperative care, including monitoring his renal function and managing his immunosuppressant medications. The surgery occurred without any significant complications, and Mr. Lawrence’s recovery was excellent.

A month after his return to the United States, Mr. Lawrence ran out of the medications that his doctors in China had prescribed, including his immunosuppressants. He knew that failing to take the medication could cause graft rejection, so he made an appointment with Dr. Roberts, a nephrologist at a local academic center who specialized in care of renal transplant patients… Dr. Roberts understood how difficult it was to secure an organ, but didn’t want to be perceived as condoning Mr. Lawrence’s actions.

WATCH: When thinking about justice, it is important to explore the perspectives of all stakeholders and consider the systems through which they interact. In the case of transplant tourism, this means knowing where organs can come from as well as who seeks them out. This is a problem of global justice, which means that ALL governments and ALL healthcare systems are implicated in our ethical reasoning.  See this short video from BBC News that portrays one family’s experience.

GOAL: See one example of the complexities of different stakeholders perspectives on the trade of organs across countries

This is a very short clip, but delves into the emotions and sense of responsibility that pervade the distribution of organs as a very scarce resources across the world.


WATCH: Now that you’ve thought about the case on your own, see the perspectives of some experts from different professional backgrounds.


GOAL: familiarize yourself with different professional backgrounds and different forms of expertise on ethics in a challenging clinical context.


READ: in preparation for the discussion of a different case where injustice appears at the bedside, review this OpEd by Dr. Ofri “The Insulin Wars”. This essay provides a robust perspective regarding what it can feel like to face societal injustices that obstruct one’s ability to provide optimal care.

For further reading (not required)…

There are several impressive documentaries on transplant tourism, here is one from the UK that is slightly older (2004) but provides extensive insight into the perspectives of various stakeholders including patients, families, and transplant surgeons on multiple sides of the debate: The Transplant Trade. There is another newer documentary that investigates China’s illegal organ trade called Human Harvest, which can be accessed through the library here.

There are a number of recent articles in the news regarding the insulin cost crisis in the US. See this OpEd by Maris Kreizman “Why Am I Stockpiling Insulin in my Fridge?” Or, watch this video: https://nyti.ms/2RcVv5u.