Prevention before cure: personal responsibility and medical care
After an embarrassing calamity at work involving a slip on a greasy floor and an industrial oven, I once found myself in the waiting room for Accident and Emergency at my local hospital. After a while, a man stumbled inside with two policemen at his heels. He was drunk and injured after some sort of fight on a night out. He showed off his missing ear, having had it removed after in a previous night out gone wrong. He took a look at the other waiting people and swore, refused to sit down, and finally decided that he had no reason to be treated and wandered out of the hospital and into the night.
Hospital workers commit themselves to one of the most honourable professions of society, helping the sick in times of need. Not everyone needs an ambulance; some people have visited hospitals for minor or major operations, others are starting the battle against old age, and some people, though it saddens us, enter hospital without the expectation to leave it. For men and women to commit their lives to ensuring the treatment of people as their bodies rebel against them is outstanding.
Understandably, doctors and nurses are rarely overjoyed to find intoxicated citizens waiting for treatment to which they feel they are ‘entitled’, and I’m sure patients don’t like to hear, see or maybe smell other people who are being abusive to the staff and public.
This all relates to the notion of personal responsibility. An audience member on a recent edition of Question Time suggested that mothers-to-be who smoke and drink should receive no assistance from the National Health Service if their babies turn out to be deformed or mentally impaired; she received a grumble of shock and contempt from the audience. In her eyes, it is the smoking and drinking mother’s liberty to smoke and drink while pregnant, and therefore her own silly fault if her child is damaged inside and is born incapable. Society has informed her of how mistaken she would be to be smoking and drinking, and so there is no reason why society should bend over backwards and assist her after foolishly committing that mistake.
I must say that I found what she said to be convincing. People are aware of the risk of these activities. Drinking far too much can land you in a very unpleasant situation, sometimes costing you your life, and drinking, smoking and substance abuse can be damaging to the growing child when you are pregnant. What’s more, it creates an unwanted burden for everyone else who has to assist you in a predicament that could easily have been avoided.
But we have to bear in mind two things. Firstly, it is the liberty of the pregnant woman or the party animal to choose whether they shall do these potentially-damaging things. No one is suggesting that getting drunk should be criminalised. They are aware of the consequences and they choose to plough on with their course of action, and we can’t do anything to stop that without affecting their liberty. Secondly, what are the ethics of refusing people medical care? Despite their mistakes or misfortune, these people are still in need. Doctors and nurses are committed to helping the sick, whatever their circumstances. When people fall victim of crime, do policemen say, “It’s your fault, you shouldn’t have been walking down that alley late at night,” and considered the matter closed? I should hope not!
What we can do is encourage people to take personal responsibility. If they are so unconcerned with the consequences it can have on their own lives, I would stress the importance of how they can affect the lives of others – property damage, abuse, or simple, good-old-fashioned wasting time. However, what outweighs our feelings of being let down by others is our duty to help them. They may have forgotten their duties toward you – is that a justified reason to decide not to follow your duties toward them?