July 24, 2024

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Delivery of Care: The Ethical Imperative in Healthcare

6 min read

The ethical imperative in healthcare necessitates equitable delivery of care to all individuals, regardless of their socio-economic status or insurance coverage. This principle is rooted in the concept of justice and is crucial to achieving health equity.

As gastroenterologists, despite our various practice settings, we have seen the harmful effects of economic and social disparities on health outcomes. We must therefore ensure that we acknowledge the existence of these disparities, and then begin to provide a framework that allows us to ethically and successfully navigate these complexities for our patients and our affiliated structures.

The following cases illustrate the complexities and ethical dilemmas that gastroenterology and hepatology healthcare professionals encounter in delivering care within the traditional healthcare system.

  • Case 1: A 44-year-old male presents to the hospital with intermittent rectal bleeding every few weeks without associated abdominal pain or weight loss and not associated with straining. He has bowel movements every 2-3 days. There is no family history of underlying gastrointestinal disease or associated neoplasm. He is accompanied at the time of the interview by his coworker who offered to drive him to the hospital as he is having personal car trouble. Physical examination reveals normal hemodynamics, abdomen is benign, a digital rectal exam reveals small internal hemorrhoids without pain. Hemoglobin is 10, MCV 85. There is scant blood on the glove. He is uninsured. A GI consult is placed to determine the disposition of the patient. The resident on service suggests outpatient follow-up given low risk of clinical deterioration.
  • Case 2: A 28-year-old woman postpartum 6 weeks presents in the office with a history of ulcerative colitis which was diagnosed 2 years prior. She was initially placed on steroid therapy. She underwent a colonoscopy at the time of her diagnosis and was following with a gastroenterologist at which time she was found to have moderate left-sided disease with a modified Mayo score of 9. She complains of urgency and rectal bleeding. She saw a gastroenterologist during her pregnancy and was placed on oral mesalamine, which she remains on at the time of evaluation. Once her physical examination is completed and laboratory values are reviewed, you begin to discuss advanced therapies including biologics as she has failed conventional therapies.
  • Case 3: You receive a phone call from an outside hospital about a potential transfer for a 46-year-old male who is an immigrant of unknown citizenship status with fulminant liver failure. He meets all criteria including encephalopathy and coagulopathy. He drinks only socially. His secondary liver workup for extensive disease including ceruloplasmin remains pending. Viral hepatology serologies and autoimmune serologies are negative.

Challenges to the Delivery of Equitable Care

These cases underscore the challenges of delivering equitable care within a system that often fails to address the social determinants of health (SDOH). The disparity in the evaluation and treatment of patients based on insurance status not only affects patient outcomes, but also emphasizes the ethical dilemma of balancing cost with population health management.

The introduction of measures SDOH-1 and SDOH-2 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in the 2023 IPPS Final Rule is a step towards requiring hospitals to systematically collect patient-level SDOH data, aiming to establish meaningful collaborations between healthcare providers and community-based organizations for whole-person care.1 The primary goal is to allow ecosystems to collect patient-level social risk factors followed by the creation of meaningful collaboration between healthcare providers and the community-based organizations.

The office settings may or may not implement the SDOH and the current electronic medical record systems. However, from a social history standpoint and certainly from a decision standpoint, the impact of SDOH is realized in all settings.

Interplay of SDOH and Ethical Considerations

The recognition of social determinants of health is crucial for ethical healthcare delivery. In the first case, considering the patient’s identified social determinants of health — including lack of insurance and transportation, combined with the rising incidence of colorectal cancer in individuals under 55 — an argument could be made for admitting the patient under observation for inpatient colonoscopy.

Data have shown disparities in treatment and referrals in emergency care setting for Black patients with rectal bleeding.2 It is imperative that we recognize these existing disparities in diagnosis and outcomes, along with determining SDOH to appropriately come to a final disposition. This approach aligns with the principle of justice and the imperative to deliver equitable care.

In the third case study, we have a patient facing the life-or-death situation of fulminant liver failure. He requires an expeditious decision to be made about transfer candidacy for liver transplant evaluation by the hepatology team.

Impact of Insurance Status on Healthcare Access

Insurance status significantly influences access to healthcare and disparities in treatment outcomes. As seen in case 2 and case 3, our therapies often hinge upon access.

In the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) case, the therapy that we will choose for our IBD patient may be more influenced by access than efficacy. In a national sample of children with Crohn’s disease, publicly insured children were more likely to receive a biologic within 18 months of diagnosis compared to children with private insurance.3 This would suggest that those with private insurance perhaps experience increased barriers.

In the IBD case that we presented here, we do have a publicly insured woman who will face a potential loss of her Medicaid coverage. Our therapeutic decision will therefore not just rely on risk stratification and individualized approach, but rather the programs that are put in place by our pharmaceutical partners to support a future self-pay patient. This may or may not be favorable to her outcome. This discrepancy points to systemic inequalities in healthcare access and the need for policies that ensure equitable treatment for all, regardless of insurance status.


The delivery of care in healthcare is an ethical imperative that demands equity and justice. The cases discussed above illustrate the complex interplay between socioeconomic factors, insurance status, and the ethical challenges in providing equitable care.

Systematic efforts to address social determinants of health, as mandated by recent CMS measures, along with a commitment to ethical principles, are essential steps toward reducing disparities and ensuring that all individuals receive the care they need. As healthcare expenditures continue to rise, particularly in areas like gastrointestinal health, addressing these ethical and systemic challenges becomes even more critical for the sustainability of the healthcare system and the well-being of the population it serves.

Gastrointestinal healthcare expenditures totaled $119.6 billion in 2018. Annually there were more than 36.8 million ambulatory visits for GI symptoms and 43.4 million ambulatory visits with primary GI diagnosis.4 The use of higher-acuity settings and lack of continuity of care, and the under-recognition and lack of longitudinal framework to follow those families at risk continue to compromise our healthcare system. We must begin to create a framework to provide equitable care for which the cornerstone should be those identified social determinants of health.

Dr. McCutchen is a gastroenterologist at United Digestive, Atlanta, Georgia. She is vice chair of the AGA Research Foundation. Dr. Boules is vice president of global medical and scientific affairs at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals, Cleveland, Ohio.


1. www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2022-08-10/pdf/2022-16472.pdf.

2. Shields HM et al. Disparities in evaluation of patients with rectal bleeding 40 years and older. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2014 Apr. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2013.07.008.

3. Quiros JA et al. Insurance type influences access to biologics and healthcare utilization in pediatric Crohn’s disease. Crohns Colitis 360. 2021 Aug. doi: 10.1093/crocol/otab057.

4. Peery AF et al. Burden and cost of gastrointestinal, liver, and pancreatic diseases in the United States: Update 2021. Gastroenterology. 2022 Feb. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2021.10.017.


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