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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Robyn Bluhm, PhD
The New York Times Magazine recently published a long-form story about the tension between treating patients with COVID-19 by any means that might improve their chances of survival and recovery, and enrolling them in clinical trials to establish the safety and efficacy of these treatments, thus improving care both for future patients and for those who survived the trial. As with many stories about health care in the current pandemic, this article both raises perennial issues in bioethics and shows them in their starkest form: the seriousness of the condition of these patients and the lack of knowledge about how best to help them mean that the ethical dilemma described in the story is particularly clear. But a closer look at work in bioethics and the epistemology of clinical research suggests that, while the dilemma is clear, there are more ways forward than the two incompatible ways portrayed in the story.
The story begins by describing the clash between a critical-care physician faced with a COVID-19 patient whose condition was worsening, and a researcher who had enrolled that patient in a clinical trial. The former wanted to give the patient a higher-than-standard dose of the anticoagulant she was being treated with, even though this might mean that she would need to be withdrawn from the trial. The latter advocated for the importance of maintaining the integrity of the study, saying that acting on instinct instead of on evidence “was essentially ‘witchcraft’.”
Unsurprisingly, this characterization did not go over well with the other doctors in the meeting. A less contentious way of describing the situation might have been to say that, while doctors use their clinical judgment to make decisions about how best to use available evidence in caring for a particular patient, this only works when there is evidence available. And everyone agrees that, in the case of COVID-19, there is horrifyingly little evidence. This means that enrolling COVID-19 patients in clinical trials is not depriving them of standard care (care that such patients would ordinarily receive if not in the trial)–standard care for this condition does not yet exist.
There is a lot to think about here. Importantly, it’s not the case that the doctors treating seriously ill patients had no idea what to do. They had a wealth of experience treating patients with severe viral infections, with acute respiratory distress syndrome, with cardiac arrest, or with pathological immune reactions (the “cytokine storm” sometimes seen in chemotherapy patients). Some of this knowledge informed the care of early COVID-19 patients, raising the question of which treatments could be successfully generalized to this new patient group.
The notion of generalizable knowledge is in fact central to research ethics. The Belmont Report, which guides research ethics oversight in the United States, draws a bright line between research and clinical practice on the basis of their ostensibly distinct goals. Research aims to provide generalizable knowledge, while clinical practice aims to benefit an individual patient. This way of drawing the distinction meant that when physicians depart from standardly-accepted care in the treatment of an individual patient, it does not count as research (and therefore does not require ethics review). It also leads to the problem described above: enrolling a patient in a research study requires that they forgo their right to individualized care and are treated according to study protocol. Deviations from the protocol, such as the one described in the opening of the New York Times story, are prohibited. Patients whose care does not follow the protocol will usually be withdrawn from the study.
But this sharp distinction between research and practice also makes assumptions about the kind of clinical research being conducted. Schwartz and Lellouch (1967) distinguish between “explanatory” and “pragmatic” approaches to clinical trials. Explanatory trials are designed to minimize the influence of any factors, other than the experimental therapy, that could affect the outcome being measured. These other factors include additional medications and the presence of comorbid disease. Pragmatic trials, by context, are designed to resemble actual clinical practice, where patients often take more than one medication and often have more than one health problem. Pragmatic trials may also enroll a wider variety of participants (especially older participants), permit alterations in the study protocol, be more flexible in the timing of outcome measurement; in general, they are more flexible in their design and analysis. A given trial will fall somewhere on the spectrum between “highly explanatory” and “highly pragmatic” in its design.
In the case of COVID-19, there are good reasons to favor trials that are more pragmatic. First, there are so many factors that might affect prognosis (or were previously thought to do so) – age, gender, weight, blood type, various pre-existing conditions – that the study population cannot be narrowly defined. If it is, then the results of the study will apply only to people in that narrow population. Second, care for critically ill patients is rapidly developing. Even in the absence of an established drug regimen, survival rates have been improving. This means that by the time a trial is completed, the experimental therapy will be implemented in a very different context of care. Perhaps more importantly, because of these first two reasons, a strict, explanatory trial is less likely to give generalizable knowledge than a more pragmatic one (Bluhm and Borgerson, 2018). Research that reflects clinical practice is more likely to be useful in improving clinical practice.
Robyn Bluhm, PhD, is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. She is a co-editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: Philosophy, Mental Illness, and Mass Shootings; “Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?; Antibiotics: No Clear Course; To Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question