This was not exactly a tough ethical question. Hmmm. Is stealing right? Let me think…But I want to pass it along because it’s a telling indicator of how horrendously high health costs can lead to questionable behavior.
A doctor posed this question in the ethics column in the New York Times magazine yesterday:
My elderly aunt became ill and phoned me, a physician, to ask if she should call an ambulance. I surmised that she was severely dehydrated. From my hospital, I took a bag of saline, IV tubing, an IV lock and a needle. An unsuspecting nurse handed me the tape that secures the needle. I gave my aunt these fluids at home, and she soon felt better, as did I: my stealing $50 worth of medical supplies saved the taxpayers more than a thousand dollars for an E.R. visit. Did I do right? E.G., NEW YORK
The doctor got the requisite verbal hand-slap for pilfering supplies and for treating a family member. But the ethicist, Randy Cohen, also wrote:
I should offer a word in your defense from another doctor, Paul R. Marantz, director of the Center for Public Health Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who acknowledged that what you did was stealing, but said in an e-mail that “purloining $50 (more likely $20) worth of medical supplies while saving hundreds (more likely thousands) seems a good choice compared with the more burdensome alternative of a visit to the E.R.” I agree that those who practice medicine in imperfect institutions might — must — sometimes choose imperfect actions, but believe that your supply-room raid still fell short.