Doctors have an ethical obligation to patients



DEAR DR. ROACH: I was shocked when I read an article from a reputable source implying that sooner rather than later, doctors who have a patient who could be treated successfully only with massive doses of antibiotics would be required to allow the patient to die rather than run the risk of creating a generation of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In other words, one person must die for the sake of many.

While I understand the logic of this, I also find it profoundly disturbing and wonder about your comments. — J.F.

ANSWER: As physicians, we are obliged to act primarily in the best interests of our patients — not ourselves, and not society. Therefore, in the case of a patient who would die without the only effective antibiotic, our primary duty would be to use the antibiotic in hopes of saving our patient, recognizing that this may reduce the effectiveness of the antibiotic in the future. Of course, we should take great pains to isolate the patient so that this hypothetical superbug does not get out and spread. This happens every day now.

Hospitals have systems in place to restrict certain antibiotics to life-threatening situations when only those antibiotics are effective. This is done to minimize the risk of developing bacteria that are resistant to all antibiotics. Unfortunately there are times when there are no effective antibiotics, and people die because of highly resistant bacteria. We would never let someone die because of the possibility of resistance. We would never withhold a potentially useful antibiotic if it was expected to help. This is part of the physician’s ethics.

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DEAR DR. ROACH: Please address a baby boomer health concern: Hepatitis C. A television advertisement stated that a blood test can reveal its presence and that there is effective medication to cure it. How does hepatitis C affect a person? — E.B.

ANSWER: Hepatitis C is far more common than most realize. In the United States, about 1 percent of adults have chronic infection — that’s approximately 3 million people.

About half with hepatitis C do not know that they are infected, as it frequently has no symptoms for many years. Because hepatitis C may lead to severe complications — including cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver failure and need for transplantation — identifying people early so that they can be treated has become a priority, new treatments have become available that are very effective and have few side effects.

You mentioned baby boomers, and they indeed are a high-risk group who should be screened for hepatitis C. (Definitions of “baby boomer” vary, but people born between 1945 and 1965 are recommended for screening.) If that’s you, ask your doctor if you have already been screened, and if not, request it.

Apart from people born during this time, others who should be screened for hepatitis C include anyone with HIV infection, anyone on hemodialysis, anyone incarcerated and people from high-risk countries, especially Central and East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Screening is easy and safe: A simple blood test. Finding out that you are negative is a relief. Finding out that you are positive is life-saving.

(Roach is a columnist for the North American Press Syndicate. Write to him at 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803.)

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