Emergency-Only Hemodialysis Policies: Ethical Critique and Avenues for Reform

Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 48 (3):527-534 (2020)
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Abstract

An estimated 6,500 undocumented immigrants in the United States have been diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. These individuals are ineligible for the federal insurance program that covers dialysis and/or transplantation for citizens, and consequently are subject to local or state policies regarding the provision of healthcare. In 76% of states, undocumented immigrants are ineligible to receive scheduled outpatient dialysis treatments, and typically receive dialysis only when presenting to the emergency center with severe life-threatening symptoms. ‘Emergency-only hemodialysis’ is associated with higher healthcare costs, higher mortality, and longer hospitalizations. In this paper, we present an ethical critique of existing federal policy. We argue that EOHD represents a failure of fiduciary and professional obligations, contributes to moral distress, and undermines physician obligations to be good stewards of medical resources. We then explore potential avenues for reform based upon policies introduced at the state level. We argue that, while reform at the federal level would ultimately be a more sustainable longterm solution, state-based policy reforms can help mitigate the ethical shortcomings of EOHD.

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