Ethical dilemmas in prioritizing patients for scarce radiotherapy resources

BMC Medical Ethics 25 (1):1-11 (2024)
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Abstract

BackgroundRadiotherapy is an essential component of cancer treatment, yet many countries do not have adequate capacity to serve all patients who would benefit from it. Allocation systems are needed to guide patient prioritization for radiotherapy in resource-limited contexts. These systems should be informed by allocation principles deemed relevant to stakeholders. This study explores the ethical dilemmas and views of decision-makers engaged in real-world prioritization of scarce radiotherapy resources at a cancer center in Rwanda in order to identify relevant principles.MethodsSemi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 22 oncology clinicians, program leaders, and clinical advisors. Interviews explored the factors considered by decision-makers when prioritizing patients for radiotherapy. The framework method of thematic analysis was used to characterize these factors. Bioethical analysis was then applied to determine their underlying normative principles.ResultsParticipants considered both clinical and non-clinical factors relevant to patient prioritization for radiotherapy. They widely agreed that disease curability should be the primary overarching driver of prioritization, with the goal of saving the most lives. However, they described tension between curability and competing factors including age, palliative benefit, and waiting time. They were divided about the role that non-clinical factors such as social value should play, and agreed that poverty should not be a barrier.ConclusionsMultiple competing principles create tension with the agreed upon overarching goal of maximizing lives saved, including another utilitarian approach of maximizing life-years saved as well as non-utilitarian principles, such as egalitarianism, prioritarianism, and deontology. Clinical guidelines for patient prioritization for radiotherapy can combine multiple principles into a single allocation system to a significant extent. However, conflicting views about the role that social factors should play, and the dynamic nature of resource availability, highlight the need for ongoing work to evaluate and refine priority setting systems based on stakeholder views.

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