BACKGROUND: It is ethically controversial whether medical doctors are morally permitted to ration the care of their patients at the bedside. To explore whether general practitioners in fact do ration in this manner we conducted a study within primary care in the Danish public healthcare system. The purpose of the study was to measure the extent to which general practitioners (GPs) would be willing to factor in cost-quality trade-offs when prescribing medicine, and to discover whether, and if so to what extent, they believe that patients should be informed about this.
METHODS: Postal survey of 600 randomly selected Danish GPs, of which 330 responded to the questionnaire. The Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS, version 14.0) was used to produce general descriptive statistics. Significance was calculated with the McNemar and the chi-square test. The main outcome measures of the study were twofold: an assessment of the proportion of GPs who, in a mainly hypothetical setting, would consider cost-quality trade-offs relevant to their clinical decision-making given their economic impact on the healthcare system; and a measure of the extent to which they would disclose this information to patients.
RESULTS: In the hypothetical setting 95% of GPs considered cost-quality trade-offs relevant to their clinical decision-making given the economic impact of such trade-offs on the healthcare system. In all 90% stated that this consideration had been relevant in clinical decision-making within the last month. In the hypothetical setting 55% would inform their patients that they considered a cost-quality trade-off relevant to their clinical decisions given the economic impact of such trade-offs on the healthcare system. The most common reason (68%) given for not wanting to inform patients about this matter was the belief that the information would not prove useful to patients. In the hypothetical setting cost-quality trade-offs were considered relevant significantly more often in connection with concerns about costs to the patient (86%) than they were in connection with concerns about costs to the healthcare system (55%; p < 0.001).
CONCLUSION: Although readiness to consider cost-quality trade-offs relevant to clinical decisions is prevalent among GPs in Denmark, only half of GPs would disclose to patients that they consider this relevant to their clinical decision-making. The results of this study raise two important ethical problems. First, under Danish law physicians are required to inform patients about all equal treatments. The fact that only a few GPs would inform their patients about all of the relevant treatments therefore seems to contravene Danish law. Second, it is ethically controversial that physicians act as economic gatekeepers.