Friday, October 19, 2012

Who's the Victim?

Sometimes the borderline cases where things aren't clear-cut are most interesting.  The current meningitis scare is a good example.  I found an article from Nashville presenting many of the facts while highlighting the dilemma facing many of the victims.  Usually when I see the word "victim," I immediately look for a link to the dimension of responsibility.  Are people really victims or are they acting helpless for sympathy, for financial gain, or to avoid some negative consequence?  Who is a victim, what is a victim?

This case shows us some true victims.  People went to the doctor looking for relief from back pain and found out later that the injection was tainted.  Some developed meningitis and some have died.  The people acted in good faith; the doctors acted in good faith, but tragedy resulted.

I call this a borderline case, because there are people also featured in this article who remain healthy.  The first example is a man who was notified that he was exposed and refuses to pay his doctor bill.  He claims to be a victim, but a victim of what?  Is exposure the same as contracting a disease?  There were over 14,000 possibly exposed, about 2% have contracted meningitis, and about 0.15% have died (so far).  Others in his position have already contacted lawyers, preparing to file suits, probably against the Massachusetts drug company but perhaps against the doctors and the medical facilities where they were treated. 

Is someone a victim if only exposed?  If you go to the doctor and realize there is a good chance of becoming sicker thanks to the one sitting next to you in the waiting room, should you expect not to pay?  Are you a victim if you are notified of a possible danger from your treatment, but have no symptoms?  Of course, anyone would be very worried and stressed, but would it be better not to notify them, thereby lowering the probability of them seeking immediate help if symptoms develop?  What role does the news media play in adding unnecessarily to the worry and stress?

Finally, what does society owe the people who never get sick?  I say society, because there is no magic money tree.  Any judgments or settlements, in this case or others like it, will come back to us eventually in the form of higher premiums for our own health or liability insurance.  Since we are all connected economically, we must take a more personal view of these actions and decisions.

Yes, these borderline cases are extremely interesting.  When we think about them in behavioral terms in the key dimensions, I think we at least start asking the right kinds of questions. 

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