Do you agree that all patients should be entitled to equal access to healthcare whatever their lifestyle choices? This was the motion put forward for last night’s Health Debate, the first of six debates to be held across Ireland in the 2009 Pfizer Health Debates series in association with The Irish Times. These debates on healthcare are open to the general public, free of charge, through advance registration and provide a forum for those attending to articulate perspectives and concerns. I couldn’t resist the temptation.
Last night’s debate was chaired by Irish Times columnist, Fintan O’Toole. Well-known economist, Jim Power argued against the motion along with Prof Charles Normand, professor of health policy and management at Trinity College, Dublin. They went head to head with Labour’s health spokeswoman, Jan O’Sullivan and Dr Donal O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist who spoke in favour of the motion. Before the debate commenced, the chairman asked the audience for a show of hands on the motion. Interestingly, there was fairly equal distribution of those ‘in favour’, those ‘against’ and the ‘don’t knows’.
Did you know that obesity accounts for 40% of all cancers? Add smoking to the equation and it becomes a 70% causal factor. Last night’s debate raised many philosophical as well as practical arguments. Should people who adopt risky lifestyle behaviours like smoking or abusing alcohol, be given the same access to healthcare as people who adopt healthy lifestyles? Is equity of healthcare, a fundamental right for everyone? Should people be judged by their lifestyle choices? How do we define which patients are worthy of treatment? Should our limited resources be put into educating people to change their behaviour? Who decides on these huge moral issues?
The debate was opened to questions from the floor giving the audience an opportunity for engagement before the final show of hands was taken. The motion was overwhelmingly carried in favour of equal access to healthcare for all patients regardless of lifestyle choice.
I voted against the motion and for good reason. I happen to believe that hard decisions need to be taken to stop the drain put on hospital resources through risky lifestyle behaviours. Look at the problems in A&E with the drunks and drug addicts. Are you happy that they get the same priority of treatment as the genuinely sick and the elderly? Instead of waiting to treat the problems caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices, healthcare resources could be allocated to educating people to take responsibility for their lives. I also believe that people with serious illness are being denying optimum treatment by our failure to prioritise treatment on the basis of genuine need. The poor survival rate in this country for cystic fibrosis sufferers, is the direct result of a system that refuses to make decisions. The cervical screening programme is another example of the failure to prioritise. It was rolled out last year, 21 years after the government first agreed on the need for such a programme. It’s time people woke-up to the fact that patient’s lives are being lost through lack of government leadership. Our health service is rudderless and it remains to be seen if Captain Harney and her First Mate Drumm, will stay with the sinking ship.
The next debate in the series takes place in Cork in UCC, on 29/04/09 and will discuss the hot topic of co-located hospitals. This issue has already generated much discussion nationally so it should be a lively debate.