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The Case for Resource Sensitivity: Why It Is Ethical to Provide Cheaper, Less Effective Treatments in Global Health

When Dr. Hortense screens her patients in Chicago for cervical dysplasia and cancer, she conducts a pelvic exam, takes a sample of cervical cells, and sends them for Pap cytology and human papilloma virus DNA co-testing. But when she conducts cervical cancer screening in Botswana, she employs a much simpler diagnostic strategy. She applies acetic acid to highlight precancerous lesions and visually inspects the cervix—a technique known as the VIA (visual inspection with acetic acid) method. She treats suspicious lesions with cryotherapy.

There are multiple reasons that Dr. Hortense uses VIA in developing countries. It requires no specialized laboratory facilities or highly trained personnel. With immediate results, there is no delay in diagnosis and treatment, ensuring that patients are not lost to follow-up. Most importantly, VIA is considerably cheaper than Pap and HPV co-testing. This difference in care between Chicago and Botswana presents an ethical dilemma in global health: is it ethically acceptable to provide some patients cheaper treatments that are less effective or more toxic than the treatments other patients receive? We argue that it is ethical to consider local resource constraints when deciding what interventions to provide. The provision of cheaper, less effective health care is frequently the most effective way of promoting health and realizing the ethical values of utility, equality, and priority to the worst off. 

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