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How stable are moral judgements? A longitudinal study of context dependency in attitudes towards patient responsibility.

BMC Medical Ethics 2024 March 26
BACKGROUND: Whether patients' life-style should involve lower priority for treatment is a controversial question in bioethics. Less is known about clinicians' views.

AIM: To study how clinical doctors' attitudes to questions of patient responsibility and priority vary over time.

METHOD: Surveys of doctors in Norway in 2008, 2014, 2021. Questionnaires included statements about patients' lifestyle's significance for priority to care, and vignettes of priority cases (only in 2014).

RESULTS: Attitudes were fairly stable between 2008 and 2021. 17%/14% agreed that patients' lifestyle should count, while 19%/22% agreed that it should involve lower priority to scarce organs. 42/44% agreed that smokers should have lower priority. Substantially more agreed in 2014. Regression analyses showed that being male, working in hospital, and younger age increased the likelihood of agreeing.

CONCLUSION: A substantial minority of doctors agreed that lifestyle should be a priority criterion, possibly contrary to Norwegian legislation and professional ethics. The finding might be explained by the unspecified meaning of priority, increased scarcity-awareness, or socio-cultural trends towards individualism. The 2014 results indicate a framing effect; the vignettes may have primed the respondents towards accepting lifestyle as a criterion. We conclude that attitudes to normative questions are unstable and depend on context. A substantial minority of doctors seems to be positive to deprioritizing patients allegedly responsible for their illness. However, what deprioritization implies in practice is not clear.

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