International Journal of Applied Philosophy


published on February 7, 2019

Raymond J. Higbea, Alyssa Luboff

Care for the Root Cause of Medical Errors

In the mid-nineteenth century, healthcare delivery began transitioning from an individual, private payment model to a third-party payment model, dominated by the insurance industry. During the same time, productivity shifted from a transformational model, centered on the provider-patient relationship, to a transactional model, based on the distribution of services. The emergence of medical insurance and other third-party payers removed providers and patients from discussions about treatment plans, payment, and risk. This resulted in a weakening, if not fracturing, of the provider-patient relationship. All healthcare providers enter their profession to care for people, yet what has most frequently been lost in the transformed relationship over the past century is context, communication, and trust—all elements of a relational ethic, or what ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan first described as, “the ethics of care.” This loss of relationality has led to a model of healthcare delivery that is fractured, isolated, and uncoordinated, with an epidemic of medical errors that by some estimates results in the death of approximately 400,000 individuals per year. Thus far, isolated foci on patient quality, outcomes, and safety have been feckless and unimpressive. However, new advanced payment models, such as value-based purchasing and patient-centered medical homes, have the potential to reduce medical error by addressing its root cause. In linking payment to factors such as context, communication, and trust, they bring relationality back into the healthcare system. This essay traces the historic devolution of the provider-patient relationship and the promise of new payment models to restore it.