A Pandemic Dilemma, or, You Thought Algebra Was Tough

Squeezed February 11, 2006

OK, pop quiz, class. Take out your papers and pencils and write down this question.

You are in charge of a major hospital planning for a possible flu pandemic. You have X ventilators. You expect Y number of people to need ventilators, and Y > X. Let’s also say that it costs C dollars to purchase a ventilator, but your budget is only for B dollars. And now let’s say that things are even worse than predicted and Y > X + (B/C). How do you make sure than all Y people get the care they need?

Talk about an unsolvable problem. And not just because of the algebra.

This isn’t just a hypothetical problem, but rather a question that health care planners are grappling with nationwide. As this audio report from NPR illustrates, should the system become overwhelmed, our healthcare system will change dramatically, and moral dilemmas may happen that challenge the whole premise of medical care. Let’s say that the Terri Schiavo controversy played out during a flu pandemic and that not only was she in a permanent vegetative state, but was also on a ventilator, which would become a scarce commodity during a flu pandemic. Would you be as willing to give up the life of a loved one so that someone else might live?

I just hope that it never gets to that point. No one can fully foresee the future, and planners walk a tightrope. You definitely don’t want to put people in the position where they have to choose who lives and who dies.

OK, lecture over for now. Class dismissed.

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