Should a patient have a right not to know genetic information about him or herself?

By Benjamin E. Berkman, JD, MPH

While promising to eventually revolutionize medicine, the capacity to cheaply and quickly generate an individual’s entire genome has not been without controversy.  Producing information on this scale seems to violate some of the accepted norms governing how to practice medicine, norms that evolved during the early years of genetic testing when a targeted paradigm dominated.  One of these widely accepted norms was that an individual had a right not to know (“RNTK”) genetic information about him or herself.  Prompted by evolving professional practice guidelines, the RNTK has become a highly controversial topic.  The medical community and bioethicists are actively engaged in a contentious debate about the extent to which individual choice should play a role (if at all) in determining which clinically significant findings are returned.

In a recent paper published in Genetics in Medicine, my coauthors and I provide some data that illuminates this and other issues. Our survey of 800 IRB members and staff about their views on incidental findings demonstrates how malleable views on the RNTK can be.  Respondents were first asked about the RNTK in the abstract: “Do research participants have a right not to know their own genetic information?  In other words, would it be acceptable for them to choose not to receive any GIFs?”  An overwhelming majority (96%) endorsed the right not-to-know.  But when asked about a case where a specific patient has chosen not to receive clinically beneficial incidental findings, only 35% indicated that the individual’s RNTK should definitely be respected, and 28% said that they would probably honor the request not to know.  Interestingly, the percentage of respondents who indicated that they do not support the RNTK increased from 2% at baseline to 26% when presented with the specific case.  The percentage of people who are unsure similarly jumps, from 1% to 11%.

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Abortion Derangement Syndrome, Missouri Edition

Flickr/Creative Commons—Nicola

Flickr/Creative Commons—Nicola

by Gregory M. Lipper

Although the biggest abortion-related news last week came from the U.S. Supreme Court, a Missouri state senator (turned Attorney General candidate) took the prize for most bizarre.

Senator Kurt Schaefer—chairman of the Missouri Senate’s interim “Committee on the Sanctity of Life”—wrote a stern letter to the University of Missouri; he suggested that state law prohibited a Ph.D student from researching the effects of Missouri’s mandatory 72-hour waiting period for women who want to have an abortion. The law he cited provides, “It shall be unlawful for any public funds to be expended for the purpose of performing or assisting an abortion, not necessary to save the life of the mother, or for the purpose of encouraging or counseling a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life.”

This farfetched attempt to censor academic research on the effects of government policy raises a pair of legal issues (and one psychological observation…).

First, Senator Schaefer’s interpretation of the statute is, to put it mildly, a stretch. The student isn’t going to be “performing or assisting an abortion”; she’s going to be studying abortion—more precisely, the 72 hours between when a woman seeks an abortion and is allowed to have an abortion.

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Finally, a Final Rule on Advance Care Planning

In a victory for common sense, good policy, and good care, reimbursement for end-of-life counseling was safely tucked into the 2016 Medicare Payment Rules issued by CMS last Friday. The calm adoption of advance care planning shows welcome progress from the “death panels” hysteria that plagued this sensible policy when it was first proposed six years ago. The list of advance care planning supporters is long, including: numerous physician organizations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institutes of Medicine, the American Hospital Association, and over 80 percent of Americans. So, what is advanced care planning and why does it matter?

Given the circus that originally surrounded it, people may be surprised to learn that this policy simply involves the addition of two billable codes to the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. The first code, 99497, covers an initial 30-minute consultation on end-of-life planning, with a second, 99498, covering 30 additional minutes, if needed. Importantly, patients do not need to be seriously ill to access this benefit – a consultation can be scheduled at any time, for example, as part of an annual physical. During this meeting, patients discuss the kind of interventions they would want if they become critically ill, or as they approach the end of life. Such conversations enable collaboration between the patient, family, and medical team – it opens the door for an ongoing dialogue about priorities and goals of care (which may evolve over time).

Planning for the end of life matters because advances in medicine have created a dizzying array of interventions and palliative care options for people who are gravely ill. There are many clinical and psychosocial benefits to communicating one’s preferences around end of life care. In a September 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 89 percent of respondents said doctors should discuss end-of-life plans with patients – but only 17 percent had actually had such a discussion with their doctor. Formal recognition of the value of advance care planning is an important step in encouraging more patients and doctors to initiate the conversation.

What’s the Difference Between Anorexia Nervosa and Hunger Strike?

My last post presented the debate over force feeding hunger striking prisoners in Israel. This post will discuss another group subjected to the dramatic means of force feeding in extreme circumstances, Anorexia Nervosa patients (AN).

Although ethical justifications for force-feeding are similar for both Anorexics and Hunger strikers (save life), the legal framework is completely different in each context. Whereas hunger striking prisoners were dealt with via ad-hoc legislation meant to answer national security threats, AN patients are handled within the framework of mental health law.  In the U.S., compulsory hospitalization of mental patients occurs through the state’s Civil Commitment Laws, which require dangerousness resulting from a mental illness to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

Is the different legal attitude justified? How is it that the same act performed by prisoners is viewed as a political assertion but when done predominantly by adolescent middle-upper class girls, it is considered mental illness?

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NPRM Summary from HHS

As Michelle noted, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on human subjects research is out after a long delay. For my (and many Bill of Health bloggers’) view about its predecessor ANPRM, you can check out our 2014 book, Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future.

Here is HHS’s own summary of what has changed and what it thinks is most important:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have announced proposed revisions to modernize, strengthen, and make more effective the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that was promulgated as a Common Rule in 1991.  A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was put on public display on September 2, 2015 by the Office of the Federal Register.  The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators. It is expected that the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015.  There are plans to release several webinars that will explain the changes proposed in the NPRM, and a town hall meeting is planned to be held in Washington, D.C. in October. Continue reading

Mourning the Loss of Professor Bo Burt

By Abbe Gluck

Yale Law School and so many others in the medical-legal community mourn the sudden passing of our colleague and friend, Robert (“Bo”) Burt.  As many readers of this blog know, Bo was an early pioneer in thinking about doctor-patient relationships and the hardest questions about the end of life. He worked for years on the Soros Project, Death in America, and authored numerous books, including In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012); Death is That Man Taking Names: Intersections of American Medicine, Law and Culture (Univ. of California Press and the Milbank Memorial Fund, 2002); and Taking Care of Strangers: The Rule of Law in Doctor-Patient Relations (Free Press, 1979). His YLS obituary is here.  He will be sorely missed and always remembered.

The Right to Die and Informed Consent: New Ruling by the Supreme Court of Argentina

By Martín Hevia

In “D.M.A. s/ declaración de incapacidad” decided early this month, the Supreme Court of Argentina upheld the right to decide about one´s own death (“muerte digna”). As I had explained in a previous comment written when the ruling of the case was pending, the case involved a patient, M.A.D., that had been in a permanent, irreversible, vegetative state for 20 years due to a car accident. His sisters requested the discontinuation of the vital supportive measures which maintained M.A.D alive in an artificial way. Although this was not the first time that the Court discussed the right to die, it was a different case in that there was not a patient’s written statement on whether it was appropriate for him to continue or not certain medical treatment to keep him alive.

The Argentine National Congress had already passed legislation stating that, whenever a patient is unable to give informed consent, her relatives can do so in her name. On that basis, following the opinion of the sisters of M.A.D., the Supreme Court ordered the discontinuation of the vital supportive measures which maintained M.D alive in an artificial way. Continue reading

Human Rights Tribunal Upholds France’s Policies on Ending Life Support for Permanently Unaware Patients

By Norman L. Cantor

France recently confronted its version of America’s 2005 Schiavo case (in which the Florida Supreme Court upheld a spouse’s determination to end life support to a permanently unconscious patient despite the patient’s parents’ objections). In 2014, France’s Conseil d’Etat ruled that artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) could be withdrawn from a permanently vegetative patient based on oral statements that the patient had made, while competent, indicating unwillingness to be medically sustained in such a condition. The patient’s objecting parents then sought a declaration from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that such termination of life support would violate the European Convention on Human Rights. On June 5, 2015, the ECHR rejected the objecting parents’ contention, finding that France’s approach met human rights standards both in the process and the criteria followed by medical personnel in deciding to end life support.   Lambert v. France, #46043/14 (ECHR 2015).

Vincent Lambert, then 32 years old, was grievously injured in a 2008 traffic accident. He suffered massive brain trauma and was hospitalized for the next 7 years at Reims University Hospital. His precise medical status was initially uncertain. In July 2011, a medical evaluation found him to be “minimally conscious plus.” Over the next year and a half, he underwent 87 speech therapy sessions which failed to establish any code of communication between Mr. Lambert and his surroundings. In early 2013, the attending physician, Dr. Kariger, initiated a process to review Mr. Lambert’s condition and to determine whether the ANH sustaining Mr. Lambert should be withdrawn.

The process that followed was extensive. During 2013, Dr. Kariger consulted with 6 physicians concerning the patient’s mental status and held 2 family meetings at which Mr. Lambert’s wife, Rachel, his parents, and 8 siblings were present. In January 2014, Dr. Kariger announced his determination to end artificial nutrition and reduce hydration. Dr. Kariger’s written report explained that Mr. Lambert had become permanently unaware of his environment and, according to accounts of Mr. Lambert’s prior oral expressions, he would not wish to be medically sustained in such a debilitated condition. Five of the six medical consultants agreed, as did the patient’s wife and 6 of his 8 siblings.

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The Undue Burden Test in Texas Abortion Clinic Regulation

by John A. Robertson

[also published on Balkinization]

The Fifth Circuit decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole upholding Texas’ law requiring all abortions, including medication abortions, to be performed in a licensed ambulatory surgical center (ASC) by doctors with admitting privileges at nearby hospitals seems outrageous on several counts.  It defies a medical consensus that abortions performed in physician’s offices or licensed outpatient clinics are exceptionally safe.  With the risk of death less than 1% nationally and even lower in Texas, first trimester and many early second trimester abortions simply do not need the extensive sterility precautions and other operating room requirements needed for more invasive procedures. Indeed, colonoscopies, which have a higher morbidity and mortality rate, are permitted in non-ASC settings.

Nor does the admitting privilege requirement appreciably add to safety.  With hospitalists currently taking over care of most patients admitted to hospitals, the same doctor often does not provide both outpatient and hospital-based care, and emergency room doctors are trained to respond to any emergency.  Nor are admitting privileges necessarily an indication of a doctor’s clinical competence.  They are denied or awarded on many grounds unrelated to competency, i.e., likely frequency of future admissions, and thus do not usually impact the quality of outpatient care. Continue reading

What Does Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law Mean For Health Care?

This new post by the Petrie-Flom Center’s Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

By now, we’ve all heard the commotion around Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), although it appears that the public’s fickle attention has already moved on to other matters. Despite some headlines to the contrary, the law originally said nothing explicitly about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It focused exclusively on religious freedom, allowing the government to impose a substantial burden on “any exercise of religion” only if it is able to demonstrate that burdening the person in question is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

In line with the Supreme Court’s opinion in Hobby Lobby, which held that corporations are persons capable of exercising religion, the Indiana law defines “person” to include individuals, organizations organized for religious purposes, and business entities that “may sue and be sued” and exercise “practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized or operated for profit or nonprofit purposes.” […]

Read the full article here.

Quality Measures and Doctor Behaviors

by Vadim Shteyler

Efforts to improve health care quality under the ACA have been directed towards expanding EHR use and health IT, improving care delivery by promoting care coordination and population health, and laying incentives for providers to meet quality measures. The 33 ACO quality measures include 8 measures to evaluate preventive care, 12 measures to address goals of managing 4 common diseases, and 7 to assess patient satisfaction. Though quality improvements have not been consistently shown, studies have found modest Medicare spending reductions. In fiscal year 2013, CMS began reducing health care reimbursement rates to hospitals with excessive 30-day readmission rates, as generalized by their readmission rates for heart attacks, heart failure, and pneumonias. These were extended to include readmission rates for hip and knee surgeries in fiscal year 2015. And, as readmissions were estimated to account for $17.5 billion of Medicare costs in 2012 (in part attributable to insufficient discharge services, access to outpatient care, and follow-up), efforts to curb them are expected to continue.

The ACO quality measures have been criticized for being too process oriented (as opposed to outcomes oriented). And, undoubtedly, so few quality measures can’t encapsulate all of health care. Noted shortcomings of readmission rates as a valid indicator of quality include that they do not differentiate between planned and unplanned readmissions and they don’t adequately control for different case-mixes between hospitals. As psychiatric illness is often poorly recorded in medical records, it is a major confounder that may impact different hospitals differently. In this blog post, I add the speculative concerns of a medical student from limited experiences on the wards. Continue reading

Arizona Enacts “Abortion Reversal” Law

Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law
Guest Blogger

On Wednesday, March 25, Arizona legislators passed a bill prohibiting women from buying insurance plans that cover abortions on the federal health exchange.  Senate Bill 1318 also includes a provision on medical abortions, which are typically used during the first nine weeks of gestation. Medical abortions involve taking two pills within a few days of each other.  The law requires doctors performing such abortions to tell their patients that if they reconsider their abortion after taking their first pill, they should return to the doctor for a procedure that can allegedly “reverse” the abortion.  The law amends Arizona Statute § 36-2153 to add that at least twenty-four hours before an abortion is performed, the physician must orally and in person inform the woman that “it may be possible to reverse the effects of a medication abortion if the woman changes her mind but that time is of the essence.” The law also requires the Department of Health Services to update its website to include information about the potential ability to reverse a medical abortion.  Republican Governor Doug Ducey, who opposes abortion rights, signed the law on March 30, 2015.

Like any law addressing abortion, the law is controversial. Abortion opponents lauded the bill, stating that Wednesday, March 25th was a “great day for women in Arizona who are considering getting an abortion to get all the facts they need.” On the other hand, women’s rights and health care providers’ groups oppose the coverage exclusion and vehemently oppose the abortion “reversal” provisions.  Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs called it “junk science” and “quack medicine.”  Arizona-based gynecologist Ilana Addis stated that there is no evidence to support this provision and women would essentially be “unknowing and unwilling guinea pigs.” Continue reading

“Marlise’s Law”: Protecting the Autonomy and Dignity of Brain-Dead Pregnant Women

Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law
Guest Blogger

On March 12, 2015, Texas Representative Elliot Naishtat (Austin) filed HB 3183, which would repeal the Texas law that currently prohibits pregnant women from exercising their advance directives.  The existing statute includes the following language:  “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.” The bill strikes this sentence and would allow health care providers and medical institutions to honor a woman’s wishes about end-of-life care.

The bill is known as “Marlise’s Law,” named for Marlise Muñoz of Fort Worth, Texas, who was kept on mechanical support for two months after she was declared brain dead in 2013. Muñoz collapsed in her home in November 2013 when she was 14 weeks pregnant. She was declared brain dead two days later but John Peter Smith Hospital said it was legally prevented from removing life support because she was pregnant. Continue reading

Uncertainties in Cancer Screening

by Vadim Shteyler

A.F. was an elderly patient admitted to our service for a diagnostic work-up and management of a large pocket of pus surrounding her lungs. Until recently, she was very independent and in good health; this was her third hospitalization for the same reason in one month. Radiographic imaging was consistent with pneumonia but other causes could not be ruled out. She had not responded to antibiotics, she had no other signs of infection, and numerous cultures from her blood, pus, and sputum failed to grow microbes. Extensive testing for other possible causes was also negative. At that point, we all had the same suspicion—cancer. Some tumors in the chest can cause inflammation that may look like a pneumonia and result in a collection of pus. That inflammation can also hide the tumor on imaging. In fact, it would be a few weeks, after we drained all of the pus and the inflammation subsided, until we would have a clearer image of the lungs. Though cancer was a plausible explanation, we had no evidence at that time. Should we have discussed our concerns with A.F.? The diagnosis was not certain, so we didn’t…

In daily clinical practice, uncertainties come in many forms. Outcomes for most medical interventions are probabilistic (they are not 100% predictable). And those probabilities are often ambiguous (they are more often ranges than specific percentages) or simply unknown. At a broader level, science is underdetermined, medicine is inductive, and innumerable non-medical forces influence the medical landscape (biases, conflicts of interest, values, etc.).

How effectively providers communicate uncertainty is…well, uncertain. Continue reading

Dying: Closing the Gap between What We Know & What We Do

By Susan M. Wolf, JD (University of Minnesota), Nancy Berlinger, PhD (The Hastings Center), and Bruce Jennings, MA (Center for Humans and Nature)

Time is running out on fixing the way we die. As readers of this blog know, the courts first declared a right to refuse unwanted life-sustaining treatment in the 1976 Quinlan case. Nearly 4 decades later, too many people are still burdened with treatments they don’t want, can’t get support for care at home, and are dying without good relief of pain and suffering. So it was no surprise that the highest court in Canada finally threw in the towel. In its Feb. 6 opinion in Carter v. Canada, the court found people still “suffering intolerably as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition.” The court thus recognized a right to physician aid in dying. Canada now has a year to set up a system that will permit the practice while protecting the vulnerable from abuse.

Regardless of your views on physician aid in dying, too large a gap remains between what we know is high-quality care at the end of life and what we actually do to care for dying people. The Feb. 12 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine included four articles on the problem, including our analysis of “Forty Years of Work on End-of-Life Care: From Patients’ Rights to Systemic Reform.”  Continue reading

Minnesota Takes Further Steps to Protect Pregnant Inmates

Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Biotechnology &Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law
Guest Blogger

A legislative advisory committee is set to present an amended bill to the Minnesota State Legislature this session that raises the standard of care provided to incarcerated pregnant women in Minnesota prisons.

The amendment seeks to clarify language of a law passed on May 8, 2014 seeking to ensure incarcerated pregnant women receive the same standard of care they would receive outside a correctional facility.  The Minnesota Senate and House unanimously passed the bill, which was described as “a first step toward providing a healthy start in life for the babies born to the estimate 4,200 women per year in [Minnesota] who are pregnant at the time of their arrest.”  It was the first law to consider the unique needs of pregnant inmates. Continue reading

Professionalism in Medicine

By Deborah Cho

As an update to my previous post here on medical students and professionalism, Judge Sutton writing for the Sixth Circuit found that a medical school could deny a degree to a medical student for failing to meet “professionalism” requirements.  According to the opinion, the medical student had come late to classroom sessions, allegedly behaved inappropriately at a formal dance, had to repeat his internal medicine rotation due to poor performance, and had been convicted of driving white intoxicated.  The Sixth Circuit found that Ohio, where the medical school is located, treats the relationship between a university and a student as contractual in nature, with that contract’s terms supplied by the student handbook.  As the handbook in this case included professionalism as part of the academic curriculum, the university’s determination that the student failed to meet professionalism requirements was an academic judgment and thus merited deference by the court.

Last summer, Judge Gwin of the Northern District of Ohio found that the medical school went beyond its scope of duty by extending its determination of professionalism well past academic or patient related matters.  The district court found for the student, noting that the “character judgments” found by the university were “only distantly related to medical education.”  In my last post, I noted that this separation of personal character from competence to practice medicine seemed troublesome.  The Sixth Circuit’s opinion reversing the district court shows similar concerns.

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A Chief Privacy Officer’s Take on the Chanko Case

Earlier this month, Charles Ornstein explored a New York City family’s charge that their privacy was violated by a local hospital and a reality television show in ProPublica. More specifically, he details how the death of one Mr. Mark Chanko was filmed at NY Presbyterian Hospital without the family’s consent, and then nationally aired on ABC’s NY MED over a year later. Mr. Chanko’s face was blurred for viewers but he remained recognizable to family and friends who watched the show. Since the broadcast, the family has pursued legal action through several New York courts with little success thus far.

The piece has already been commented upon by several smart people, most recently Kay Lazar of the Boston Globe. Just one day after Ornstein’s piece went to press, the Dean of Harvard Medical School Jeffrey Flier (@jflier) tweeted “How could this be allowed to happen?” only to be informed by the Chair of Surgery at Boston Medical Center, Gerard Doherty, (@GerardDoherty4) that three Harvard-affiliated hospitals are in fact currently hosting camera crews for a similar series. The ensuing conversation reminded me just how limited a platform Twitter is for tricky conversations about health care law and ethics. So I did what any self-respecting millennial would do – I went home for the holidays and asked my mom to help me understand what the internet couldn’t.

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A Physician Fights Surgery

Physician and bioethicist Carla C. Keirns described the potentially dangerous impact of medicalization on her own childbirth in the Narrative Matters section of Health Affairs this month. A segment of that writing was reproduced in the Washington Post yesterday.

In each piece, Keirns outlines the challenges she faced in vaginally delivering her son in a hospital environment that seemed committed to performing a caesarian section. Particularly given Keirns’ expertise in and familiarity with health care, the lack of patient-centered care in the story is striking. Several staff suggested that surgery was a foregone conclusion while others appeared unprepared for her son’s long-awaited arrival.

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FDA Updates System for Explaining Risks of Meds in Pregnancy

By Emily Largent

On Wednesday, the FDA published the “Pregnancy and Lactation Labeling Rule” (PLLR), which “requires changes to the content and format for information presented in prescription drug labeling . . . to assist health care providers in assessing benefit versus risk and in subsequent counseling of pregnant women and nursing mothers who need to take medication, thus allowing them to make informed and educated decisions for themselves and their children.”  The FDA also issued draft guidance for industry to assist drug manufacturers in complying with the new labeling and format requirements.

The current system, which was developed in the 1970s, uses letters of the alphabet–A, B, C, D, and X–to denote risk, with X being the most dangerous.  The PLLR removes pregnancy letter categories from all prescription drug and biological product labeling.  The new system breaks the risk into three categories: Pregnancy, Lactation, and Females and Males of Reproductive Potential.  Companies will be required to provide a summary of risks, a discussion of the data supporting that summary, and relevant information to help clinicians make prescribing decisions.  The changes go into effect on June 30, 2015.  Labeling for over-the-counter medications will not change.

The PLLR should help many women, as there are more than 6 million pregnancies in the U.S. each year.  Research suggests that over 90% of women use at least one medicine during pregnancy, and about 70% use at least one prescription medicine.  I think the PLLR is a wonderful step to enhance patient education and decision-making.  It will not, however, address our limited current knowledge of the safety of medication use during pregnancy.  About 98% of medicines approved for use in the United States between 2000 and 2010 had limited data to assess the risk for birth defects, for example.  More research is urgently needed, and it’s unfortunate that the rule stops short of requiring companies to conduct studies if none exist.