The Value of a LifeAllison Wolfe, MD Sep 26, 2023
What is the value of a life? Who decides who is valuable and who is not, who is worth rescuing and who is not? Recently, two very different maritime tragedies occurred. One, in which hundreds of people drowned at sea searching for a new life, hoping for better conditions on the other end of the journey, which desperate circumstances forced them to make. The other involved five very wealthy men who decided to go on an exceedingly risky journey solely for the sake of adventure. The latter incident involved an international rescue effort and held the world’s attention for days. The former made news for a day or two and was quickly forgotten. The five men were all fabulously wealthy and the hundreds that drowned were not. Why was one group deemed by the world more worthy of our empathy? More worthy of our attention? More valuable?
We see this inequity in healthcare every day. The people who are able to afford good health insurance, the people who can afford to pay for 24/7 caregiving are those who have more options in the healthcare system. Does this guarantee better health? No, but it does afford people more support, especially at the end of life. Wealth gives people more opportunities which allows health care providers to, sometimes, do more for these patients, which can feel like they are more valued.
In palliative care, every person’s value and their own value system are at the center of our care. We aim to determine what a person holds important and navigate decisions with those principles at the center of every discussion. By putting the person first, by individualizing care, we are saying this person has value, has worth, regardless of their identity.