Should This Patient Get a Liver Transplant?

There aren't enough donor organs to go around for patients who need a liver transplant. This sometimes forces doctors to make tough choices. If you were the doctor, how would you decide in the following scenario?

Suppose there is a person who develops acute liver failure (ALF). While waiting for a liver transplant, this person gets sicker and sicker. When an organ is finally available, the chance that this person will survive WITH a transplant is only 42% at five years after the transplant. Since the average survival for most patients who receive a liver transplant is 75% at five years, the doctor wonders if it would be better to save the liver for someone else.

Two possible ethical principles may guide the doctor in making this decision.

Using the principle of URGENCY, the doctor would give the first available organ to the sickest patient on the transplant waiting list, the ALF patient, because she/he is otherwise likely to die within a few days.

Using the principle of UTILITARIANISM, the doctor would try to maximize the quality and quantity of life of all the people on the transplant list. Let's say there are 25 other patients currently on the waiting list, and transplanting the ALF patient increases their risk of death by 2% each, for a cumulative harm of 50%. Since this harm of 50% is more than the benefit to the ALF patient (42%), the liver should be saved for someone else on the list.

A third possibility is for the doctor to weigh both URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM in making a decision about a transplant.

If you were the ALF patient's doctor, what would you base your decision about a transplant on?
  • URGENCY (sickest patient on the list gets preference)
  • UTILITARIANISM (maximize benefit for the entire waiting list)
  • A combination of URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM