Fixing the Broken Law of Military Medical Malpractice for Birth-Related Injuries

Bill of Health bloggers Alex Stein and Dov Fox have just filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case of U.S. Air Force Major Heather Ortiz and her baby, who were denied legal remedies for obstetric malpractice by military doctors that left the baby with severe brain damage. The case is No. 15-488 Ortiz v. U.S. ex rel. Evans Army Community Hospital. Professors Fox and Stein urge the Court to overturn the Tenth Circuit’s holding that the federal government’s immunity against liability for intramilitary torts extends to wrongful injuries like those sustained by Major Ortiz’s baby. They argue that this holding misinterprets the immunity, misapplies the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), and constitutes no less than unconstitutional sex discrimination. Fox and Stein explain:

When a civilian spouse of a serviceman receives negligent prenatal care from military doctors and delivers an injured baby as a result of that malpractice, there is no question that Feres immunity does not apply and that the baby can sue the United States under the FTCA. When military medical malpractice injures the baby of a servicewoman, this baby should be equally able to obtain redress under the FTCA.  A system that would single out the civilian children of servicewomen for adverse treatment discriminates against women who serve in the armed forces. . . To interpret the FTCA as the Tenth Circuit did permits discrimination between these two classes of similarly situated victims of military malpractice and violates fundamental principles of equal protection.

To download this brief, click here.

Does FDA Need a Dietary Supplement User Fee Act?

By Elizabeth Guo

Dietary supplements are dominating headlines these days – and not in a good way. Last Wednesday, Nevada officials found basketball star Lamar Odom unconscious at a brothel after taking cocaine along with ten pills of Reload, a sexual enhancement dietary supplement. That same week, the New England Journal of Medicine released an article finding that dietary supplements lead to roughly 23,000 emergency visits a year. Following these events, some officials have called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a stronger role in regulating the dietary supplement industry.

Dietary supplements have had a long and storied past. As early as 1973, FDA tried to regulate dietary supplements regarding vitamin and mineral potency. The dietary supplement industry responded by challenging FDA in court, and Congress subsequently enacted the Proxmire Amendment, limiting FDA’s authority to regulate dietary supplements. However, by the 1990s, as consumers increasingly began to rely on dietary supplements, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, expanding FDA’s authority to regulate supplements by enacting special rules related to dietary supplement labeling and manufacturing.

Currently, FDA regulates dietary supplements as a special category of foods. Unlike manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplement manufacturers do not need to be registered with FDA and do not need list possible adverse events on supplement labeling. As Joanna Sax points out, this is a major problem because not all dietary supplements are the same. For example, certain weight loss or sexual enhancement supplements often contain chemicals associated with potentially serious side effects while other supplements containing chemicals such as Vitamin C pose less serious safety concerns.

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Reproductive Malpractice and the U.S. Military

Check out the new op-ed at HuffPo by Bill of Health bloggers Dov Fox and Alex Stein on the unfair treatment of American servicewomen (and their children) under the Feres doctrine should they fall victim to medical malpractice during their pregnancy or delivery. Fox and Stein call for SCOTUS to fix the loophole it left open in the 1950 case, or for Congress to “set up a fund for compensating children whose disabilities were caused by substandard care at military medical facilities.”  Take a look at the full post here.

New from Bioethicist Art Caplan: How State Right-To-Try Laws Create False Expectations

A new piece by David Farber, Preeya Noronha Pinto, Bill of Health contributor Arthur Caplan, and Alison Bateman-House the Health Affairs blog:

Over the past year, state Right-to-Try (RTT) laws that claim to enable terminally ill patients to access unapproved, experimental drugs, biologics, and devices have swept the nation. As of early May, seventeen states have enacted RTT laws (most recently, Florida and Minnesota), and bills creating such laws are currently pending in over twenty state legislatures.

Although these laws have created an expectation that terminally ill patients will be able to quickly access potentially life-saving treatments by being exempted from the rules of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this expectation is, quite simply, false.

Read the full article here.

Bioethicist Art Caplan: Why a New Alzheimer’s Drug Isn’t A No-Brainer

A new piece by contributor Art Caplan on NBC News:

Biogen, a Cambridge, Massachusetts biotech company, announced last week that early tests of their new drug aducanumab, a monoclonal antibody, had shown impressive results in treating those with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. The drug significantly reduced the amyloid plaque buildup in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s.

In a very early stage safety test aducanumab slowed the cognitive decline and dementia associated with Alzheimer’s in people. On the Mini Mental Status Exam, a widely used measure of cognitive function, people at risk of Alzheimer’s who got a placebo lost around 3 points over a year. But those who got the lowest dose of aducanumab worsened by just two points and those who got a higher dose lost less than a point.

Biogen was so excited by the early results in 166 volunteers that it is going to try to go directly to a much bigger clinical trial of the drug. Wall Street was very excited too—Biogen’s stock price shot up 10 percent. […]

See the full article here.

The Great Vaccination Debate Rages On: Is There Any Solution?

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

For many years now, there has been ongoing debate about childhood vaccinations and the recent measles outbreak in Disneyland and its subsequent spread to other states has brought vaccinations and questions about communicable diseases back to the headlines.  Politicians, including potential presidential candidates such as Hilary Clinton, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie, are also wading back into the debate.

Most recently, five babies who attend a suburban Chicago daycare center were diagnosed with the measles. As a result, anyone in contact with these infants who has not received the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine must remain home, essentially quarantined, for the next twenty-one days—the incubation period for measles. All five of these infants were under the age of one and therefore did not yet have the chance to receive the vaccination, which is not administered until one year of age.

The Chicago outbreak is a prime example of why public health officials emphasize the reliance on herd immunity to protect those who are not yet, or cannot be, vaccinated for legitimate reasons. Unfortunately, the United States has reached a period where it can no longer place much reliance on herd immunity, particularly as more parents decide not to vaccinate their children against very contagious, yet highly preventable diseases. Illness and death are two of life’s certainties, but why should they be given that they are preventable in this situation?  What are the strongest, most rational arguments in this debate? What policy solutions should states consider?  Several options have been proposed over the years, some more feasible and likely than others. Continue reading

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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Ebola and Privacy

By Michele Goodwin

As the nation braces for possibly more Ebola cases, civil liberties should be considered, including patient privacy.  As news media feature headline-grabbing stories about quarantines,  let’s think about the laws governing privacy in healthcare. Despite federal laws enacted to protect patient privacy, the Ebola scare brings the vulnerability of individuals and the regulations intended to help them into sharp relief.

In 1996, Congress enacted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to protect patient privacy.  Specifically, HIPAA’s Privacy Rule requires that healthcare providers and their business associates restrict access to patients’ health care information.  For many years, the law has been regarded as the strongest federal statement regarding patient privacy. But it may be tested in the wake of the Ebola scare with patients’ names, photographs, and even family information entering the public sphere.

Ebola hysteria raises questions not only about how to contain the disease, but also to what extent Americans value their healthcare privacy.  What liberties are Americans willing to sacrifice to calm their fears?  How to balance the concern for public welfare with legal and ethical privacy principles?  For example, will Americans tolerate profiling travelers based on their race or national origin as precautionary measures?  What type of reporting norms should govern Ebola cases?  Should reporting the existence of an Ebola case also include disclosing the name of the patient?  I don’t think so, but the jury appears out for many.

Prop. 46: Lawyers v. Doctors

By Emily Largent

California Proposition 46, the Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap and Drug Testing Doctors Initiative, is on the November 4, 2014 ballot.  If approved by voters, the initiative would: increase the state’s cap on non-economic damages that can be assessed in medical negligence lawsuits; require hospitals to test certain physicians for drugs and alcohol; and require healthcare providers to check a statewide prescription drug database before prescribing or dispensing certain drugs to a patient for the first time.

The  debate over Proposition 46 has been framed as a battle between doctors and lawyers.  See also here or here.  It’s not hard to see why.  Attorneys have contributed the vast majority of the “yes” campaign‘s $9 million fund.  By contrast, nearly three-fourths of the “no” campaign‘s $57 million has come from six insurance companies; other big backers include the state medical and dental associations.  (It is the most expensive campaign in California this year.)  While the two sides have made a variety of arguments for and against Proposition 46’s various provisions, I want to focus on the putative costs and cost-savings:

First, Proposition 46 would increase California’s current $250,000 limit on non-economic awards (which dates to the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act of 1975) to $1.1 million, and provide for annual adjustment for inflation going forward. The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that increased state and local government health care costs from raising the cap likely range from the tens of millions of dollars to several hundred million dollars annually.  On the other hand, a RAND study of EDs in three states with strict malpractice limits found the caps had little effect on the cost of care.  Continue reading

Ebola, Flight Bans, and Politics

By Zachary Shapiro

It seems like the debate over banning flights from West African Ebola stricken countries has become instantly political, with many Conservatives calling for a flight ban. See here. One author, in response to these calls, points to the history of Liberia’s relationship with the United States as a reason that the US should not consider a flight ban. Arguments against a flight ban that are not based on public health principles provide fodder for the talking heads and individuals who want to see this as a political issue.

The real question should be how much good a flight ban would do to halt the spread of Ebola to the United States. Many public health experts, from the CDC to the WHO, do not think a ban would make us safer.

Ebola is only contagious when the patient is symptomatic, and the first symptom is almost always a fever. If a patient does not have a fever, and is asymptomatic, they are not contagious. Thus they do not provide a serious risk of infecting other people, even in the confined quarters of an airplane. This makes temperature screening especially important. This easy screening tool is already in use at airports in Ebola affected Countries.  Continue reading

Art Caplan: Why do two white Americans get the Ebola serum while hundreds of Africans die?

As the WHO announced today that medical ethicists will convene next week in New York to discuss the use of experimental medicines in the West African Ebola outbreak, Art Caplan has a timely new opinion piece in the Washington Post asking why only white American victims of the Ebola outbreak have been treated with an experimental serum. Caplan argues that the decision was a question of economics:

The reasons for different treatment are partly about logistics, partly about economics and, partly about a lack of any standard policy for giving out untested drugs in emergencies. Before this outbreak, ZMapp had only been tested on monkeys. Mapp, the tiny, San Diego based pharmaceutical company that makes the drug stated two years ago: “When administered one hour after infection [with Ebola], all animals survived…Two-thirds of the animals were protected even when the treatment, known as Zmapp, was administered 48 hours after infection.”

But privileged humans were always going to be the first ones to try it. ZMapp requires a lot of refrigeration and careful handling, plus close monitoring by experienced doctors and scientists—better to try it at a big urban hospital than in rural West Africa, where no such infrastructure exists. […]

But it’s about more than logistics. Drugs based on monoclonal antibodies usually cost a lot—at least tens of thousands of dollars. This is obviously far more than poor people in poor nations can afford to pay; and a tiny company won’t enthusiastically give away its small supply of drug for free. It is likely that if they were going to donate drugs, it would be to people who would command a lot of press attention and, thus, investors and government money for further research—which is to say, not to poor Liberians, Nigerians or Guineans. […]

To get Caplan’s full perspective, read the full article.

Serious Risks from New Prescription Drugs

by Donald W. Light

Based on

Few people know that new prescription drugs have a 1 in 5 chance of causing serious reactions after they have been approved. That is why expert physicians recommend not taking new drugs for at least five years unless patients have first tried better-established options and need to. Faster reviews advocated by the industry-funded public regulators increase the risk of serious harm to 1 in 3. Yet most drugs they approve are found to have few offsetting clinical advantages over existing ones.

Systematic reviews of hospital charts by expert teams have found that even properly prescribed drugs (aside from misprescribing, overdosing, or self-prescribing) cause about 1.9 million hospitalizations a year. Another 840,000 hospitalized patients given drugs have serious adverse reactions for a total of 2.74 million. Further, the expert teams attributed as many deaths to the drugs as people who die from stroke. A policy review done at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University concluded that prescription drugs are tied with stroke as the 4th leading cause of death in the United States. The European Commission estimates that adverse reactions from prescription drugs cause 200,000 deaths; so together, about 328,000 patients in the US and Europe die from prescription drugs each year. The FDA does not acknowledge these facts and instead gathers a small fraction of the cases.

Perhaps this is “the price of progress”? For example, about 170 million Americans take prescription drugs, and many benefit from them. For some, drugs keep them alive. If we suppose they all benefit, then 2.7 million people have a severe reactions, it’s only about 1.5 percent – the price of progress?

However, independent reviews over the past 35 years have found that only 11-15 percent of newly approved drugs have significant clinical advantages over existing, better-known drugs. While these contribute to the large medicine chest of effective drugs developed over the decades, the 85-89 percent with little or no clinical advantage flood the market. Of the additional $70 billion spent on drugs since 2000 in the U.S. (and another $70 billion abroad), about four-fifths has been spent on purchasing these minor new variations rather than on the really innovative drugs.

In a recent decade, independent reviewers concluded that only 8 percent of 946 new products were clinically superior, down from 11-15 percent in previous decades. (See Figure) Only 2 were breakthroughs and another 13 represented a real therapeutic advance.

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When Should you Be Able to Subpoena Clinical Trial Data? “Clinical Trials and the Right to Remain Silent” in JAMA Internal Medicine

Should litigants in products liability or other litigation be able to subpoena data from clinical trials to help prove their case? Does it matter whether the clinical trial is ongoing, finished recruiting but still analyzing data, or published? Michelle Mello and I have an invited commentary on this issue in JAMA Internal Medicine “Clinical Trials and the Right to Remain Silent” with our analysis and recommendations. We are discussing a real case from Yale where a subpoena was sought for data from a placebo-controlled trial of pioglitazone conducted there, where the person seeking the data had sued the manufacturer and believed she had been injured by pioglitazone but was not a clinical trial participant. In the same issue of JAMA IM, Yale gives its own account about how it handled the case here.  Dr. Kernan (the investigator) and I also have a nice interview podcast on the issue

When you Can Shed Blood for your Country but not Donate it

Portsmouth, Va. (Jan. 5, 2005) - A hospital corpsman assigned to USS Bataan (LHD 5), donates a pint of blood during the blood drive held by the Blood Donor Team. The Blood Donor Team stationed at Portsmouth Naval Hospital visits multiple commands throughout the area in efforts to boost the blood supply for the U.S. Armed Forces around the world. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Jeremy L. Grisham (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

A hospital corpsman donates a pint of blood. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Jeremy L. Grisham (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

I have a new article in JAMA this week, “Reconsideration of the Lifetime Ban on Blood Donation by Men Who Have Sex With Men,” co-authored with my former student Jeremy Feigenbaum and my frequent co-author Dr. Eli Adashi (former Dean of Medicine at Brown). In the article we show that FDA’s current policy is morally, ethically, and legally problematic. We are out of step with our peer countries (including the UK, Canada, South Africa) who do delay when men who have sex with men can give blood but not for a lifetime, the way the U.S. does. It is remarkable that if you have sex with a female prostitute or a woman who is HIV+ you face only a 12-month deferral in the U.S. but if you have had sex with a man, just once, ever, no matter his HIV status you face a lifetime delay.

We are in a world where the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down as unconstitutional, where Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been struck down so that gay men and lesbians can proudly serve their country and shed blood (their own, others) on the battlefield. It is time to change a 30-yr old policy prohibiting them giving blood. What’s more, given the the Windsor decision and the recent Ninth Circuit application of heightened scrutiny to the exclusion of gay jurors for jury duty, we think there are serious constitutional questions about FDA’s policy as well.

My preferred approach, and the one I think FDA should move towards, is the Italian “test and assess” which has no blanket classification of MSM but instead does individualized risk assessment. As we describe in our paper thus far has not increased the risk of HIV+ blood making its way into the blood supply.

The Williams Institute in 2010 estimated that 6% of men had at least once had sex with another man, meaning there are potentially 7.2 million men who could become blood donors but are excluded by FDA’s rule. We owe it not only to these men, but also to all those who could benefit from their blood donations to revisit this rule.

New Medical Tourism Website with Info for Patients

My good friends and co-authors at Simon Fraser University have a nice new website aimed at Canadians (though useful for people from all countries) considering using medical tourism about what to think about, questions to ask, steps to take, etc (Full Disclosure: I participated in a feedback session on the website). Here is a story about the website in the National Post, and here is the website itself.

Direct-to-Patient Laboratory Test Reporting

MJYPetrie-Flom Student Fellow Michael Young has coauthored a new piece with Ethan Scheinberg (Harvard Law School) and Harold Bursztajn (Harvard Medical School) now available through JAMA, “Direct-to-Patient Laboratory Test Reporting: Balancing Access With Effective Clinical Communication” The article discusses ethical and clinical implications of a 2014 HHS ruling allowing patients direct access to completed medical laboratory reports.

From the article:

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High Noon for Population-Wide Mammography Screening?

By Prof. Dr. med. Dr. phil. Nikola Biller-Andorno

Director, Institute of Biomedical Ethics, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Safra Network Fellow, Harvard University (13-14)

Visiting Professor, Div. Medical Ethics, Harvard Medical School (12-14)

It is amazing how much heat a report can draw that simply states what has been all over town for some time now: We do not know if mammography screening does more good than harm, we do not even know for sure if it does any good at all.

The Swiss Medical Board, an independent health technology assessment initiative that was started in 2008, stated that based on the empirical data availability the introduction of mammography screening all over Switzerland could not be recommended.

As could be expected the report drew fire. Curiously, one of the chief complaints was that it was “unethical” to upset women who might no longer know if screening was good for them or not.

This sounds just a little bit paternalistic – particularly given that we know that most women seriously overestimate the benefits of screening when making their decision, a point that my colleague Peter Juni and myself illustrate in a Perspective piece published on May 22, 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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DUE 6/3: Call for Abstracts: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

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The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Food and Drug Law Institute are pleased to announce an upcoming collaborative academic symposium:

Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

Monday, October 20, 2014 

Washington, DC

We are currently seeking abstracts for academic presentations/papers on the following topics:  Continue reading

Art Caplan on handshakes in medical settings

Art Caplan has a new opinion piece up at NBC News on the suggestion, in a recent JAMA article, that handshakes should be banned in healthcare settings. From the article:

Now, the handshake ban might make sense if it were not for the fact that the constant touching of microbe-laden things by providers and patients is likely to go on and, handshake or not, they are still likely to fist bump, shoulder pat, rub noses or whatever else they think shows love, care and concern for one another.

Health care has gotten very sterile and impersonal as more technology appears, less time is set aside for talking and more health providers find themselves chained to their computers or handheld medical devices. While not every culture values a handshake, many do, and putting the kibosh on grip and grinning just adds to the perception that caring and curing are heading down different highways.

Read the full article.

Call for Abstracts: Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation





The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Food and Drug Law Institute are pleased to announce an upcoming collaborative academic symposium:

Emerging Issues and New Frontiers for FDA Regulation

Monday, October 20, 2014 

Washington, DC

We are currently seeking abstracts for academic presentations/papers on the following topics:

  • Stem cell therapies
  • Nanotechnologies
  • Genetic (and biomarker) tests
  • Gene therapies
  • Personalized medicine
  • Comparative efficacy research
  • Drug resistant pathogens
  • Globalized markets
  • Tobacco
  • GMO
  • Bioterrorism countermeasures
  • Mobile health technologies
  • Health IT
  • Drug shortages
  • Other related topics

Abstracts should be no longer than 1 page, and should be emailed to Davina Rosen Marano at by Tuesday, June 3, 2014. Questions should also be directed to Davina Rosen Marano.

We will notify selected participants by the end of June.  Selected participants will present at the symposium, and will be expected to submit a completed article by December 15, 2014 (after the event) to be considered for publication in a 2015 issue of FDLI’s Food and Drug Law Journal (FDLJ).  Publication decisions will be made based on usual FDLJ standards.