Addressing the complex problems of health care justice generated by precision medicine

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The 2022-2023 Bioethics Public Seminar Series begins next month with a webinar from Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, on “Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation.” This virtual event is free to attend and open to all individuals.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022
1:30-2:30 PM EST (UTC−05:00)
Zoom webinar registration:

Metastatic cancer and costly precision medicines generate extremely complex problems of health care justice. Targeted cancer therapies yield only very marginal gains in life expectancy for most patients at very great cost, thereby threatening the just allocation of limited health care resources. Philosophic theories of justice cannot address adequately the “wicked” ethical problems associated with these targeted therapies. Following Rawls, Fleck argues for a political conception of health care justice, and a fair and inclusive process of democratic deliberation governed by public reason. The virtue of democratic deliberation is that citizens can fashion autonomously and publicly shared understandings to fairly address the complex problems of health care justice generated by precision medicine. “Wicked” problems can metastasize if rationing decisions are made invisibly. A fair and inclusive process of democratic deliberation can make these “wicked” problems visible, and subject, to fair public reason constraints. What constrained choices do you believe you would endorse with your fellow citizens as being “just enough”?

Leonard M. FLeck

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. Dr. Fleck’s interests focus on medical ethics, health care policy, priority-setting and rationing, and reproductive decision-making. He explores the role of community dialogue (rational democratic deliberation) in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies. More recently, he has completed a book-length manuscript that addresses a number of ethical and policy issues related to precision medicine, primarily in a cancer treatment context. He also completed another book that addresses several contemporary issues related to bioethics and religion from a Rawlsian public reason perspective.

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Leonard Fleck on his new book ‘Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation’

What are we willing to accept as limits on access to very expensive marginally beneficial healthcare in our society?

Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck’s latest book, Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation, is now available from Oxford University Press. Fleck’s work as a philosopher and medical ethicist has focused on health care policy, and the role of community dialogue in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies.

In an interview about this book, Fleck spoke of beginning democratic deliberation work around 1980 as part of a research project regarding changes to the Medicare program. He described the importance of involving members of the community in conversations about what values and considerations should shape the kinds of limits they would be willing to live with in terms of accessing needed healthcare. That project, centered in an Indiana community, shaped his work moving forward. The interview that follows explores the importance of democratic deliberation regarding the use of targeted cancer therapies.

Registration is open for a webinar on November 16 where Fleck will present on this topic.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation red and blue book cover.
Book cover, copyright Oxford University Press.

Who is the ideal audience of this book?

The ideal audience would be a broad segment of the public that needs to be aware of the kinds of challenges, the ethical and public policy challenges, that are associated with precision medicine. Its high cost and its marginal benefit.

How would you broadly define precision medicine?

Typically, precision medicine is defined as providing the right drug at the right time and the right dose for the right medical problem. Right now, mostly what we’re talking about is cancer, that is, metastatic cancer. What we’re talking about are the molecular features of a metastatic cancer that a particular individual has. The drugs that are used to attack that cancer are drugs that are designed for the very, very, very specific molecular features of a particular cancer. Some of those features get to be defined in really sharp terms. Researchers and physicians no longer talk about a stomach cancer or a lung cancer—I mean they they’ll use those terms, but the recognition is that the nature of the cancer, in terms of what we’re going to try to do about it from a therapeutic perspective, that’s going to be determined by the molecular signature of that cancer.

What is democratic deliberation, and why is it important? How does it apply to this topic of precision medicine and healthcare justice?

I always start off with what I call the “Just Caring” problem. What does it mean to be a just and caring society when we have only limited resources—money—to meet virtually unlimited healthcare needs? And that’s a very, very broad problem that applies to all of healthcare, certainly in the United States today. With regard to cancer, the issue is that these targeted cancer therapies, and the so-called immunotherapies which are among the targeted cancer therapies, are extraordinarily costly. They typically apply to relatively small groups of patients, measurable in a few thousand rather than one hundred thousand. For the vast majority of these patients, receiving one of these very expensive drugs is only going to yield extra months of life, if that, as opposed to a lot of extra years.

I’ve spent 50 years of my life thinking about this issue. And it’s only grown and become more complex over those 50 years, because of all the emerging life prolonging medical technologies that have come to be.

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

So, if we had a $100,000 drug and this was going to give somebody three extra years of life, my guess is that most of us, democratic deliberators charged with determining how to spend our money on a whole range of healthcare interventions, including, of course, cancer, would say it’s a lot of money, but if we’re giving somebody three extra years, we ought to do that. And we ought to do that, we might say, because we think about, what are we spending now for purposes of giving a patient with HIV an extra year of life? A patient on a four-drug combination? The answer there would be $35,000 a year. And if we spend a $100,000 to give somebody three extra years of life, then that’s $33,000 a year. So it seems like if we’re spending money for the HIV positive patient at that level, we ought to be willing to spend that same amount of money to help cancer patients.

However, things are a lot more complicated than that simple example would suggest. So, in the case of cancer, one of the basic problems that I didn’t make perfectly clear in my earlier remarks is that even though I talked about a molecular feature of a cancer that is usually described as the driver of that metastatic cancer, and that is the target one of the targeted therapies, the fact of the matter is that in metastatic cancer there are going to typically be multiple drivers of a cancer. Most of them will be suppressed by the dominant driver. What happens in practice is that we’ve identified the dominant driver of the cancer, we give the individual a drug to kill that dominant driver, which it successfully does. And then another new driver emerges within that tumor, and then the tumor continues to grow, the cancer progresses. Now we may have another drug for that new driver, which will have roughly the same effect. It’ll kill that new driver and make room for yet another driver. But now, then, we’re providing to individuals several drugs in a row that have costs of $100,000 or $200,000 each. So, we’re spending a lot more money for a lot less good for these cancer patients. And so, the question for democratic deliberation is, what do we owe, under what particular circumstances, as a matter of what a just and caring society ought to be, to patients with metastatic cancer for whom there are these very expensive drugs that are only going to yield, for most patients, marginal benefit?

What I would ask an audience to imagine, when I’m working with an audience of individuals from the community, is that everybody in that room is probably very healthy. They have no idea what their future health vulnerabilities might be. Some people might say, well, we’ve got heart disease in the family, or some family history suggests cancer, but there’s still lots and lots of other health problems that you could have that could be deadly. The question is, if you don’t want to spend all your money on healthcare, and you don’t want to spend everybody else’s money on healthcare, then, collectively, what would you see as being reasonable investments of limited healthcare resources for addressing healthcare needs? Cancer needs, heart needs, Alzheimer’s disease needs, diabetic needs, psychiatric needs, needs associated with various kinds of disability. When you, in a thoughtful and objective way, try to consider the whole range of healthcare needs, where should we invest the limited dollars that we’re willing to provide? Right now, it’s 18% of our gross domestic product, roughly $4.1 trillion. Where are we willing to invest those dollars?

What led you to work that focuses on precision medicine? Was it natural from the other health policy work you have done, specifically work on allocating resources?

It was related both to allocating resources, because the cost of these drugs just leapt out at me, starting roughly in around 2010 or so. But the other thing was that I had been looking at a whole range of ethics and policy issues related to emerging genetic technologies. This was one of the newer elements associated with these emerging genetic technologies. This was a product of the Human Genome Project. Plus, the research that had been going on with regard to cancer, as researchers began to understand the extent to which cancer is this extraordinarily complex disease, that there’s not just sort of one or two or three drivers of these cancers. That there are different biological features of the cancer that are responsible for the cancer being so vigorous in multiplying. In brief, there’s that combination of the cost of these drugs and what that would do to distort the just allocation of health resources in our society, and the genetic features of these cancers that turned out to be so extraordinary genetically complex.

Something that strikes me, discussing these very expensive targeted therapies, is where does palliative care fit into the discussion of precision medicine?

For oncologists who are treating patients, for patients who have read something about precision medicine, for patients who have looked at some of the ads that are associated with precision medicine that have been on television, it’s very difficult to convince any of those patients that palliative care is something that they needed to give serious consideration to. Because it looked like these drugs could give them some very significant extensions of their life. And, of course, the fact of the matter is that there’s some percentage of patients who will get one or two or three extra years of life. There’s a teeny tiny percentage of patients who we call super responders, who might get seven, eight, ten extra years of life or more. At the moment we have no way of identifying before the fact how particular patients are going to respond to these drugs.

What happens is that patients imagine to themselves, I could be that person. Somebody is going to be a super responder, just like somebody ultimately wins that half a billion dollar lottery prize. How do I know it’s not me if I don’t buy a lottery ticket? How do I know it’s not me if I don’t take on this targeted cancer therapy? And if the first therapy doesn’t work, I heard that there’s a second and a third. And so as long as they seem to be doing something by way of controlling my cancer, of course I want that. I don’t want palliative care. So that’s sort of the psychological logic behind the reluctance of both patients and oncologists to recommend palliative care before it is just absolutely clear that nothing else is going to work.

What is one overall takeaway someone should get from this book? What is the question you want folks to continue thinking about?

What are we willing to accept as limits on access to very expensive marginally beneficial healthcare in our society? I want readers to think about the just caring problem, which is an extraordinarily complex problem. I’ve spent 50 years of my life thinking about this issue. And it’s only grown and become more complex over those 50 years, because of all the emerging life prolonging medical technologies that have come to be. Not just with regard to cancer, but with regard to heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, diabetes, and every other area of medicine that we care to name.

I’d like to add that ideally, ethically, I think we’re inclined to say, if we have a somewhat costly life prolonging care that’s effective, then everybody with the relevant need ought to have access to that if we are a just and caring society. If somebody has an inflamed appendix that is life threatening if they don’t receive the necessary surgery, then they ought to receive that surgery, whether they’re rich or poor, insured or uninsured. They ought not to be allowed to die. You will get, I think, very broad agreement in our society that that’s a just and reasonable kind of moral commitment we ought to make. It gets more difficult, though, to make that commitment when it comes to these extraordinarily expensive cancer drugs. And part of the problem is that in the United States probably no more than half of us are employed at places where we’re provided with very comprehensive health insurance, and where we’re not responsible for paying very much of the cost of our healthcare. But for the other half of the population who typically are working in lower wage jobs, who may be provided with some health insurance but it’s very marginal, it’s bare bones insurance. It’s the sort of insurance that requires that individuals pay 30 or 40% of the cost of these cancer drugs. And, of course, that’s impossible for individuals making $15, $20, $25, even $30 an hour. For a $150,000 drug, they cannot pay $30,000, and so they don’t get it. Nevertheless, they are paying through taxes, and through their insurance premiums, for others who would have access to these drugs. So that’s one of the fundamental inequities in our society, and the targeted cancer therapies make that inequity, I think, more visible. It doesn’t seem as if, as a society, we’re willing to address that challenge. However, that is one of the preeminent ethical challenges that must be addressed if we are to be a just and caring society.

Dr. Fleck presents at 21st Annual ASBH Conference

Leonard Fleck photoCenter Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck recently attended and presented at the 21st American Society for Bioethics and Humanities Annual Conference, held in Pittsburgh, PA. Dr. Fleck participated in a session titled “Ageism in History, Moral Thought, and Healthcare Decisions,” presenting “Just Caring: In Defense of Fair Innings, Not Extra Innings, for the Elderly.”

Dr. Fleck has provided a summary of his presentation below.

A just and caring society has as its first obligation to assure access to needed and effective health care for all so that, if medically possible, all have an opportunity to achieve a normal life span (their fair innings). It is wrong to deny the elderly (over age 70) access at social cost to needed and effective health care simply because they are old or very old. But it is equally morally objectionable for the elderly to demand unlimited access at social cost to any medical intervention that offers them some opportunity (no matter how small) for some extended life or somewhat improved quality of life. Those are unjust demands by the elderly and cannot be rightly criticized for being ageist.

In the real world, the non-elderly do not wish to pay unlimited sums (payroll taxes) to underwrite the costs of the current generation of the elderly. But it is also the case that the current generation of the non-elderly do not wish to pay more in taxes to support the even greater health care needs of their own future possible elderly selves.

The clearest example I have of “pure” age-based rationing is one of the recommendations we made to the governor in the event of a pandemic in the vicinity of the “Spanish flu of 1918.” We said if there was a shortage of vents/ ICU beds or other such life-saving interventions, no one over age 70 would have access to those interventions. I would not want my grandkids or your grandkids to die so that I could live to my mid-80s or beyond.

There is a new version of a totally implantable artificial heart (TIAH), expected to be in clinical trials in early 2020. This would promise extra years of life to the 500,000 patients each year in the U.S. in late-stage heart failure. The cost per person would be more than $400,000. Many of these patients will be in their 80s or beyond. If all 500,000 patients had an equal just claim to a TIAH, that would add $200 billion per year to the cost of health care. Could we agree through public deliberation no one over age 80 would be eligible for this heart at social expense?

Iibrutinib is for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia at a cost of $156,000 per person per year. These patients are mostly older; median onset at age 71. Ibrutinib will fail some at year 2, year 4, year 6, year 8. Then patients either die or (today) have the option of CAR T-cell immunotherapy at a front-end cost of $475,000. (And there are hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs per patient for those who experience cytokine release syndrome). 30% of these patients given CAR T-cell therapy will die in less than a year. If we had a biomarker that could identify those patients before the fact, would it be just to still allow access to CAR T-cell therapy if a patient were less than 75, but deny it to patients over age 75 who were identified with 90% probability of being in that 30% group? These are challenges for democratic deliberation.

Dr. Tomlinson and co-authors published in ‘European Journal of Human Genetics’

Tom Tomlinson photoCenter Director and Professor Dr. Tom Tomlinson is first author of the article “Effect of deliberation on the public’s attitudes toward consent policies for biobank research,” published in the February 2018 issue of the European Journal of Human Genetics. The work of Dr. Tomlinson and co-authors Raymond G. De Vries, H. Myra Kim, Linda Gordon, Kerry A. Ryan, Chris D. Krenz, Scott Jewell, and Scott Y. H. Kim was supported by the NIH-funded project “Public Preferences for Addressing Donors’ Moral Concerns about Biobank Research.”

Abstract: In this study, we evaluate the effect of education and deliberation on the willingness of members of the public to donate tissue to biobank research and on their attitudes regarding various biobank consent policies. Participants were randomly assigned to a democratic deliberation (DD) group, an education group that received only written materials, and a control group. Participants completed a survey before the deliberation and two surveys post-deliberation: one on (or just after) the deliberation day, and one 4 weeks later. Subjects were asked to rate 5 biobank consent policies as acceptable (or not) and to identify the best and worst policies. Analyses compared acceptability of different policy options and changes in attitudes across the three groups. After deliberation, subjects in the DD group were less likely to find broad consent (defined here as consent for the use of donations in an unspecified range of future research studies, subject to content and process restrictions) and study-by-study consent acceptable. The DD group was also significantly less likely to endorse broad consent as the best policy (OR = 0.34), and more likely to prefer alternative consent options. These results raise ethical challenges to the current widespread reliance on broad consent in biobank research, but do not support study-by-study consent.

The full text is available online through Springer Nature (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).