Should this patient get a liver transplant? (Nov-08)

You are here

There aren't enough donor organs to go around for patients who need aliver transplant. This sometimes forces doctors to make tough choices.If you were the doctor, how would you decide in the following scenario?  There aren't enough donor organs to go around for patients who need a liver transplant. This sometimes forces doctors to make tough choices. If you were the doctor, how would you decide in the following scenario?Suppose there is a person who develops acute liver failure (ALF). While waiting for a liver transplant, this person gets sicker and sicker. When an organ is finally available, the chance that this person will survive WITH a transplant is only 42% at five years after the transplant. Since the average survival for most patients who receive a liver transplant is 75% at five years, the doctor wonders if it would be better to save the liver for someone else. Two possible ethical principles may guide the doctor in making this decision. 

Using the principle of URGENCY, the doctor would give the first available organ to the sickest patient on the transplant waiting list, the ALF patient, because she/he is otherwise likely to die within a few days.

Using the principle of UTILITARIANISM, the doctor would try to maximize the quality and quantity of life of all the people on the transplant list. Let's say there are 25 other patients currently on the waiting list, and transplanting the ALF patient increases their risk of death by 2% each, for a cumulative harm of 50%. Since this harm of 50% is more than the benefit to the ALF patient (42%), the liver should be saved for someone else on the list.

A third possibility is for the doctor to weigh both URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM in making a decision about a transplant.

If you were the ALF patient's doctor, what would you base your decision about a transplant on?
  • URGENCY (sickest patient on the list gets preference)
  • UTILITARIANISM (maximize benefit for the entire waiting list)
  • A combination of URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM

How do your answers compare?

There's no absolutely right or wrong answer in this case—the choice depends on which of several competing ethical principles or which combination of principles you follow. In choosing a combination of URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM, you've decided to try to balance the needs of the sickest patient with the needs of all the people on the transplant waiting list.

CBDSM researcher Michael Volk, MD, is the lead author on a recent article that tackles difficult decisions like this one. Volk and his colleagues examined a method to incorporate competing ethical principles in a decision analysis of liver transplantation for a patient with ALF. Currently, liver transplantation in the United States is determined by the principle of “sickest first," with patients at highest risk for death on the waiting list receiving first priority. In other words, the principle of URGENCY is paramount. However, most experts agree that, given the limited supply of organs, there should be a cutoff for posttransplant survival below which transplantation is no longer justified.

Where does society draw this line? And what framework can we use for ethical guidance?

Decision analysis of resource allocation would utilize the principle of UTILITARIANISM, to maximize the broad social benefit. But surveys of the general public have shown that most people prefer to temper utilitarianism with other considerations, such as equal opportunity, racial equity, and personal responsibility. Another factor that might be considered is the principle of fair chances. This is the idea that patients who have not had a chance at a liver transplant should receive priority over those who have already had once chance at a transplant.

Volk constructed a mathematical model (Markov model) to test the use of competing ethical principles. First he compared the benefit of transplantation for a patient with ALF to the harm caused to other patients on the waiting list, to determine the lowest acceptable five-year survival rate for the transplanted ALF patient. He found that giving a liver to the ALF patient resulted in harms to the others on the waiting list that cumulatively outweighed the benefit of transplantation for the ALF patient. That is, using UTILITARIANISM as the sole guiding ethical principle gave a clear threshold for the transplant decision: if the ALF patient did not have a five-year survival rate of at least 48%, she/he should not receive a transplant under this principle.

But UTILITARIANISM is not always the sole guiding ethical principle. When Volk adjusted the model to incorporate UTILITARIANISM, URGENCY, and other ethical principles such as fair chances, he got different thresholds. Depending on the combination of ethical principles used, Volk and his colleagues have shown that the threshold for an acceptable posttransplant survival at five years for the ALF patient would range from 25% to 56%.

The authors of this study conclude:

"Our model is an improvement over clinical judgment for several reasons. First, the complexity of the various competing risks makes clinical decision making challenging without some form of quantitative synthesis such as decision analysis. Second, a systematic approach helps ensure that all patients are treated equally. Most important, this study provides moral guidance for physicians who must simultaneously act as patient advocates and as stewards of scarce societal resources."

Volk ML, Lok ASF, Ubel PA, Vijan S, Beyond utilitarianism: A method for analyzing competing ethical principles in a decision analysis of liver transplantation, Med Decis Making 2008;28, 763-772.


More information:

Beyond utilitarianism: A method for analyzing competing ethical principles in a decision analysis of liver transplantation.
Volk M, Lok AS, Ubel PA, Vijan S. Medical Decision Making 2008;28(5):763-772.