Bioethics Blogs

Is a gift of ribs “slightly unethical” in the physician-patient relationship?

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, a physician tells the story of an underserved patient who owned a rib joint. The patient would bring ribs whenever he had an appointment. And once a year, the patient would come to the hospital just to bring a smoked Thanksgiving turkey to the physician.

The patient lacks insurance and thus is not able to get a badly needed hip replacement. As the story continues, the physician contacts an orthopedic surgeon in another health system in hopes of getting treatment for the rib-producing patient. After 4 years, a spot for a pro bono surgery opens and the “orthopedic colleague” sees the patient, who is now in intense pain and desperate need of a new hip. Recovery is successful and at the next clinical visit, the patient brings an “extra box of ribs.” A few months later, the patient dies.

The title of this piece is “Doctor-patient privilege yields rib tips,” a phrase that suggests that someone received privileged care—whether the patient got special care or the physician did is not clear—because of the ribs. Newspaper editors often write editorial titles, so the writer may have not had a say in this interpretation.

Most interesting is a paragraph from the beginning of the essay: “It was slightly unethical to schedule an extra clinic visit each year for those ribs, but they were worth it.” In one of the nation’s largest circulation newspaper, this physician states that he scheduled appointments not for the patient’s benefit, but for a delivery of ribs.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.