Consumer Directed Health Care: Ethical Limits to Choice and Responsibility
Axtell-Thompson, Linda M.
Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2005 April; 30(2): 207-226
As health care costs continue to escalate, cost control measures will likely become unavoidable and painful. One approach is to engage external forces to allocate resources--for example, through managed care or outright rationing. Another approach is to engage consumers to make their own allocation decisions, through "self-rationing," wherein they are given greater awareness, control, and hence responsibility for their health care spending. Steadily gaining popularity in this context is the concept of "consumer directed health care" (CDHC), which is envisioned to both control cost and enhance choice, by combining financial incentives with information to help consumers make more informed health care decisions and to appreciate the economic trade-offs of those decisions. While CDHC is gaining attention in the popular press, business publications, and academic journals, it is not without controversy about its relative merits and demerits. CDHC raises questions regarding the ethical limits of consumer responsibility for their choices. While the emphasis on consumer choice implies that autonomy is the ruling ethical principle in CDHC, it must be tempered by justice and beneficence. Justice must temper autonomy to protect disadvantaged populations from further widening disparities in health care access and outcomes that could arise from health care reform efforts. Beneficence must temper autonomy to protect consumers from unintended consequences of uninformed decisions. Thoughtful paternalism suggests that CDHC plans offer choices that are comprehensible to lay consumers, limited in their range of options, and carefully structured with default rules that minimize potential error costs.