Doctors obligated to put patients first

Dear Dr. Roach: I was shocked recently when I read an article from a reputable source implying that sooner rather than later (and maybe already), doctors who have a patient who could be treated successfully only with massive doses of antibiotics would be required to allow the patient to die rather than run the risk of creating a generation of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In other words, one person must die for the sake of many.

While I understand the logic of this, I also find it profoundly disturbing on many levels, and wonder what your comments might be. — J.F.

Answer: As physicians, we are obliged to act primarily in the best interests of our patients — not ourselves, and not society. Therefore, in the case of a patient who would die without the only effective antibiotic, our primary duty would be to use the antibiotic in hopes of saving our patient, recognizing this may reduce the effectiveness of the antibiotic in the future.

Of course, we should take great pains to isolate the patient so this hypothetical resistant superbug does not get out and spread to other people. This happens in hospitals every day now.

Hospitals have systems in place to restrict certain antibiotics to life-threatening situations when only those antibiotics are effective. This is done to minimize the risk of developing bacteria that are resistant to all our antibiotics. Unfortunately, despite this, there occasionally are times in the hospital when there are no effective antibiotics, and people die because of highly resistant bacteria despite all our best attempts. We would never let someone die because of the possibility of resistance. We would never withhold a potentially useful antibiotic if it was expected to help. This is part of the physician’s ethics.

Dear Dr. Roach: Please address a baby boomer health concern: hepatitis C. A television advertisement stated a blood test can reveal its presence and there is effective medication to cure it. How does hepatitis C affect a person? — E.B.

Answer: Hepatitis C is far more common than most people realize. In the United States, about 1 percent of adults have chronic infection — that’s approximately 3 million people. The number is slightly lower in Canada.

About half of people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected, as it frequently has no symptoms for many years. Because hepatitis C may lead to severe complications — including cirrhosis, liver cancer, liver failure and need for transplantation — identifying people early so they can be treated has become a priority, especially since new treatments have become available that are effective and have few side effects.

You mentioned baby boomers, and they indeed are a high-risk group who should be screened for hepatitis C. (Definitions of “baby boomer” vary, but people born between 1945 and 1965 are recommended for screening.) If that’s you, ask your doctor if you have already been screened, and if not, request it.

Apart from people born during this time, other people who should be screened for hepatitis C include anyone with HIV infection, anyone on hemodialysis, anyone incarcerated and people from high-risk countries, especially Central and East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Screening is easy and safe: a simple blood test. Finding out you are negative is a relief. Finding out you are positive is potentially life-saving.