Rationing elective surgery for smokers and obese patients: responsibility or prognosis?

Published on Dec 1, 2018in BMC Medical Ethics2.507
· DOI :10.1186/s12910-018-0272-7
Virimchi Pillutla1
Estimated H-index: 1
(Monash University, Clayton campus),
Hannah Maslen9
Estimated H-index: 9
(University of Oxford),
Julian Savulescu47
Estimated H-index: 47
(University of Oxford)
In the United Kingdom (UK), a number of National Health Service (NHS) Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) have proposed controversial measures to restrict elective surgery for patients who either smoke or are obese. Whilst the nature of these measures varies between NHS authorities, typically, patients above a certain Body Mass Index (BMI) and smokers are required to lose weight and quit smoking prior to being considered eligible for elective surgery. Patients will be supported and monitored throughout this mandatory period to ensure their clinical needs are appropriately met. Controversy regarding such measures has primarily centred on the perceived unfairness of targeting certain health states and lifestyle choices to save public money. Concerns have also been raised in response to rhetoric from certain NHS authorities, which may be taken to imply that such measures punitively hold people responsible for behaviours affecting their health states, or simply for being in a particular health state. In this paper, we examine the various elective surgery rationing measures presented by NHS authorities. We argue that, where obesity and smoking have significant implications for elective surgical outcomes, bearing on effectiveness, the rationing of this surgery can be justified on prognostic grounds. It is permissible to aim to maximise the benefit provided by limited resources, especially for interventions that are not urgently required. However, we identify gaps in the empirical evidence needed to conclusively demonstrate these prognostic grounds, particularly for obese patients. Furthermore, we argue that appeals to personal responsibility, both in the prospective and retrospective sense, are insufficient in justifying this particular policy. Given the strength of an alternative justification grounded in clinical effectiveness, rhetoric from NHS authorities should avoid explicit statements, which suggest that personal responsibility is the key justificatory basis of proposed rationing measures.
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