Context and scale: Distinctions for improving debates about physician 'rationing'

Jon C. Tilburt, Daniel P. Sulmasy

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Important discussions about limiting care based on professional judgment often devolve into heated debates over the place of physicians in bedside rationing. Politics, loaded rhetoric, and ideological caricature from both sides of the rationing debate obscure precise points of disagreement and consensus, and hinder critical dialogue around the obligations and boundaries of professional practice. We propose a way forward by reframing the rationing conversation, distinguishing between the scale of the decision (macro vs. micro) and its context (ordinary allocation vs. extraordinary re-allocation) avoiding the word "rationing." We propose to shift the terminology, using specific, descriptive words to defuse conflict and re-focus the debate towards substantive issues. These distinctions can clarify the real ethical differences at stake and facilitate a more constructive conversation about the clinical and social responsibilities of physicians to use resources ethically at the bedside and their role in allocating medical resources at a societal level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5
JournalPhilosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 29 2017


  • Access to care
  • Decision making
  • Ethics
  • Professionalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Health Policy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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