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What is the "rationing" of health care?


Updated September 26, 2006

Question: What is the "rationing" of health care?

Rationing of health care is similar to rationing of any other commodity. Simply speaking, rationing occurs in any situation where some people who need care do not receive it, usually for financial reasons.

Often, this concept is mentioned in discussions about socialized health care, where the system decides which individuals will receive care based on the demand for treatment and the amount of available resources. However, it is important to note that rationing of health care occurs in the U.S. as well – for example, with the distribution of donated organs. Also, it could be argued that ability to pay is increasingly becoming a factor in the distribution of health care in the U.S. Although health care in this country is not explicitly rationed according to ability to pay, many believe that our health care system is inevitably moving in that direction.

Rationing of health care may also play a role in end-of-life care, where doctors, patients, and families must make tough choices about how many resources should be expended in efforts to prolong or improve the lives of terminally ill patients. This is a morally challenging issue which keeps medical ethicists awake at night.

”Rationing” has become something of a dirty word when it comes to health care, and for good reason. However, it acknowledges that there is not a limitless amount of resources available to care for all medical needs.

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