The NHS tells us that our “choices include more than just which GP or hospital to use. You also have choices about your treatment decisions…” In most other countries, similarly confusing statements about PATIENT CHOICE are being made almost on a daily basis, often by politicians who have more ambition to win votes than to understand the complex issues at hand. Consequently, patients and consumers might be forgiven to assume that PATIENT CHOICE means we are all invited to indulge in the therapy we happen to fancy, while society foots the bill. Certainly, proponents of alternative medicine are fond of the notion that the principle of PATIENT CHOICE provides a ‘carte blanche’ for everyone who wants it to have homeopathy, Reiki, Bach Flower Remedies, crystal healing, or other bogus treatments – paid for, of course, by the taxpayer.
Reality is, however, very different. Anyone who has actually tried to choose his/her hospital will know that this is far from easy. And deciding what treatment one might employ for this or that condition is even less straight forward. Choice, it turns out, is a big word, but often it is just that: a word.
Yet politicians love their new mantra of PATIENT CHOICE; it is politically correct as it might give the taxpayer the impression that he/she is firmly installed in the driving seat. Consequently PATIENT CHOICE has become a slogan that is used to score points in public debates but that, in fact, is frequently next to meaningless. More often than not, the illusion of being in control has to serve as a poor substitute for actually being in control.
To imply that patients should be able to choose their treatment has always struck me as a little naïve, particularly in the way this is often understood in the realm of alternative medicine. Imagine you have a serious condition, say cancer: after you have come over the shock of this diagnosis, you begin to read on the Internet and consider your options. Should you have surgery or faith healing, chemotherapy or homeopathy, radiotherapy or a little detox?
Clearly PATIENT CHOICE, as paid for by society, cannot be about choosing between a realistic option and an unrealistic one. It must be confined to treatments which have all been shown to be effective. Using scarce public funds for ineffective treatments is nothing short of unethical. If, for a certain condition, there happen to be 10 different, equally effective and safe options, we may indeed have a choice. Alas, this is not often the case. Often, there is just one effective treatment, and in such instances the only realistic choice is between accepting or rejecting it.
And, anyway, how would we know that 10 different treatments are equally effective and safe? After going on the Internet and reading a bit about them, we might convince ourselves that we know but, in fact, very few patients have sufficient knowledge for making complex decisions of this nature. We usually need an expert to help us. In other words, we require our doctor to guide us through this jungle of proven benefits and potential risks.
Once we accept this to be true, we have arrived at a reasonable concept of what PATIENT CHOICE really means in relation to deciding between two or more treatments: the principle of shared decision making. And this is a fundamentally different concept from the naïve view of those alternative medicine enthusiasts who promote the idea that PATIENT CHOICE opens the door to opting for any unproven or disproven pseudo-therapy.
To be meaningful, ethical and responsible, choice needs to be guided by sound evidence – if not, it degenerates into irresponsible arbitrariness, and health care deteriorates into some kind of Russian roulette. To claim, as some fans of alternative medicine do, that the principle of PATIENT CHOICE gives everyone the right to use unproven treatments at the expense of the taxpayer is pure nonsense. But some extreme proponents of quackery go even further; they claim that the discontinuation of payment for treatments that have been identified as ineffective amounts to a dangerous curtailment of patients’ rights. This, I think, is simply a cynical attempt to mislead the public for the selfish purpose of profit.