Justice and Surgical Innovation: The Case of Robotic Prostatectomy

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Abstract

Surgical innovation promises improvements in healthcare, but it also raises ethical issues including risks of harm to patients, conflicts of interest and increased injustice in access to health care. In this article, we focus on risks of injustice, and use a case study of robotic prostatectomy to identify features of surgical innovation that risk introducing or exacerbating injustices. Interpreting justice as encompassing matters of both efficiency and equity, we first examine questions relating to government decisions about whether to publicly fund access to innovative treatments. Here the case of robotic prostatectomy exemplifies the difficulty of accommodating healthcare priorities such as improving the health of marginalized groups. It also illustrates challenges with estimating the likely long-term costs and benefits of a new intervention, the difficulty of comparing outcomes of an innovative treatment to those of established treatments, and the further complexity associated with patient and surgeon preferences. Once the decision has been made to fund a new procedure, separate issues of justice arise at the level of providing care to individual patients. Here, the case of robotic prostatectomy exemplifies how features of surgical innovation, such as surgeon learning curves and the need for an adequate volume of cases at a treatment centre, can exacerbate injustices associated with treatment cost and the logistics of travelling for treatment. Drawing on our analysis, we conclude by making a number of recommendations for the just introduction of surgical innovations.

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