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.
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, 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.
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.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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.
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to public attention the phrase “crisis standards of care.” This is not a phrase that is especially meaningful to most members of the public. My concern, speaking as a medical ethicist, is that it is not intended to be especially meaningful for the broad public. Instead, it is what I would describe as a bit of “antiseptic rhetoric” intended to cleanse the public conscience of otherwise troubling ethical choices health professionals might be required to make during a pandemic.
Of course, antisepsis is generally good. It prevents potentially life-threatening infections. However, very aggressive antisepsis aimed at creating a hyper-sterile environment can result in an immune system that is “uneducated,” ill-prepared for a powerful pathogen that manages to elude our antiseptic efforts. My concern is that the use of antiseptic rhetoric around COVID-19, as with the phrase “crisis standards of care,” weakens the capacity of the public to understand and thoughtfully address the troubling and tragic ethics issues generated by COVID-19 in both the health care and political sectors of our social life.
The antiseptic meaning of “crisis standards of care” is that there are too many patients who need care all at once, and consequently, the normal expectations for timely and effective care will not be met. Delays will occur. As a patient, you might be parked in a hallway on a gurney for a few hours until a room becomes available. This is annoying, but hardly cause for an anxiety attack. However, this is very far removed from the reality that patients are facing in Idaho, Montana, Georgia, Florida, and several other states where the Delta variant of COVID-19 has overwhelmed the hospital system.
I was prompted to think about crisis standards of care by a recent article in the New York Times, “’I just cry all the time’: Non-Covid patients despair over delayed care.” The article tells the story of Mary O’Donnell, age 80, who needed a five-hour back surgery procedure that was postponed indefinitely due to the hospital being filled up. She was going to need multiple days in the hospital after surgery. Her concern was that she would be permanently impaired if the surgery were not performed very soon.
Of course, the person who would occupy the bed she needed would be a COVID-19 patient with a life-threatening condition. That person might survive, but maybe not. Mary O’Donnell did not have a life-threatening condition. She was “merely” at risk for losing the functioning of her legs. That is a terrible sentence to write, but it was the medical and ethical reality. This is rationing: painful, tragic, unfortunate, and sometimes unjust.
Patients with advanced cancers or advanced heart disease needing surgical treatment will have those surgeries postponed with unknown consequences. Maybe a delay of those weeks will make no difference for that cancer; it will be effectively managed. Maybe the cancer has already metastasized, and the fate of that patient is sealed. Maybe the cancer will metastasize in those intervening weeks. Again, this is what “crisis standards of care” means in practice. It is health care rationing that necessarily implies problems of health care justice.
If there are not enough ICU beds or ventilators, then those scarce life-saving resources will go to patients who are judged most likely to survive. How is that judgment made? Can the public be confident it is made fairly? Is it ethically more important to save the most lives or the most life-years? This is a critical distinction.
Another phrase that has attracted some media attention pertains to a hospital invoking “universal do-not-resuscitate orders” for COVID-19 patients. Some right-wing media sites have warned COVID-19 patients that they must stay away from hospitals because hospitals have agreed not to treat COVID-19 patients but just let them die. No doubt those same sites are falsely pushing ivermectin as a treatment you can administer to yourself in the quiet of your own bedroom. What the phrase “universal do-not-resuscitate order” does mean is that if a COVID-19 patient codes in the ICU, there will be no effort to resuscitate them. The justification for a policy that would likely elicit anxiety, anger, and horror in much of the public is that such an effort would put at risk the lives of the health professionals attempting that effort. Further, the patient would most likely, not certainly, die despite that effort.
Here is a hard question: if you are a patient with a cancer or advanced heart disease needing surgery that has been postponed, how should you feel about that policy? You can survive, you want to survive, and you need that bed. Alternatively, if you are a COVID-19 patient in the ICU with a somewhat uncertain prognosis, how should you feel about that policy? These are the painful realities of crisis standards of care. This is health care rationing.
These are policies and policy choices that need public awareness, public understanding, and public legitimation. This requires hospitals and political leaders willing to take the risks associated with informing and engaging the public in discussion of the hard ethical choices that COVID-19 has thrust upon us. Antiseptic language may be innocuous (and politically desirable). However, the immune system of a democratic society, public reason, requires robust, honest, exacting language to strengthen its ability to resist infectious obfuscation and viral disingenuousness.
Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The authors will respond to all comments made by Wednesday, October 20, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.
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Dr. Leonard Fleck, professor in the Center for Ethics, participated in a keynote debate this month as part of the 24th annual International Bioethics Retreat that was presented virtually from Paris. Each year, “experts in medicine, philosophy, law, and health policy are invited from around the world to present their current research projects.”
Within the debate format, Dr. Fleck addressed the question: “Whole Genome Sequencing: Should It Be Publicly Funded?” Dr. Fleck defended the affirmative in this debate, while Dr. Leslie Francis of the University of Utah defended the negative. Continue reading below for Dr. Fleck’s summary of the debate.
Whole Genome Sequencing: Should It Be Publicly Funded?
Below are the key elements in the affirmative side of that debate, as well as acknowledgment of legitimate points made by Dr. Francis.
We can start with the question of what Whole Genome Sequencing [WGS] is. It refers to creating a complete map of all three billion base pairs of DNA in an individual. Next, how might WGS be used? It can be used for preventive, diagnostic, therapeutic, reproductive, and public health purposes? It can be used by adults as part of a preventive strategy, i.e., identifying genetic vulnerabilities to disorders that might be managed or prevented through behavioral change. WGS can be used diagnostically to correctly identify very rare disorders that otherwise will require a costly and painful diagnostic odyssey. This is most often true in the case of infants.
WGS is used therapeutically in the case of metastatic cancer. Both the patient and cancer tumors would be mapped in order to find a genetic driver of the cancer that could then be attacked with a targeted cancer therapy, such as trastuzumab to attack a HER2+ breast cancer. WGS can be used in a reproductive context to do non-invasive prenatal assessment of a fetus. Likewise, some advocate using WGS to do neonatal genetic screening in place of the heel stick and blood draw that will test for 56 childhood genetic disorders. WGS could test for hundreds of very rare genetic disorders that can affect children. The public health context is very visible right now as we do WGS of the COVID variants now emerging.
Why public funding? The key argument is that it is a matter of health care justice. WGS costs about $1000 for the sequencing itself, and another $2000 for the analysis, interpretation, and counseling. Insurers will generally not pay for WGS. Roughly, only the top quintile in the U.S. economic spectrum can afford to pay for WGS out of pocket. This can yield significant health advantages for them, most especially avoiding various sorts of genetic harms. More precisely, the relatively wealthy might learn of one or more health risks through WGS that would suggest the need for additional testing and therapeutic interventions, all of which would be paid for by their insurance. The less financially well off may have good health insurance but be unaware of the need to use it in a timely way without the advantage of WGS. One possible result is that a curable disease becomes incurable when symptoms are clinically evident. This is an injustice that can be avoided if access to WGS is publicly funded.
My esteemed debate partner Dr. Francis emphasized that the ethics issues are much more complex than simply matters of health care justice. The distinctive feature of any form of genetic testing is that it yields considerable information about any number of first-degree relatives who may or may not want an individual to know that information. If we do WGS on a neonate, for example, we might discover that neonate has an APOE 4/4 variant for early dementia. That means at least one parent has that vulnerability, which they might not wish to know. In addition, do those parents have any obligation to notify any other relatives of their potential vulnerability? What if, instead, it was a BRCA1 mutation for breast or ovarian cancer? More problematic still, what if WGS is used at public expense in prenatal screening with the result that some parents choose to have an abortion. Would advocates for a Right to Life view have a right to object to their tax dollars being used to facilitate access to a procedure to which they conscientiously object? This is why we have debates.
Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck spoke earlier this month at a virtual symposium presented by University of Groningen in Groningen, Netherlands.
The event’s theme was “Barriers and future directions of personalized medicine: from the bench to the patients.” Dr. Fleck’s presentation was titled “Precision Medicine/Ethical Ambiguity: Rough Justice, Wicked Problems, fragmented Solidarity.” The symposium was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. As one of several keynote speakers, Dr. Fleck provided an ethicist perspective. Dr. Fleck has provided a summary of his presentation below.
Solidarity is a fundamental social value in many European countries, though its precise practical and theoretical meaning is disputed. In a health care context, solidarity means roughly equal access to effective health care for all. However, I argued that precision medicine represents a threat to solidarity. Precision medicine includes ninety targeted cancer therapies (mostly for metastatic cancer). The “targets” of these therapies are certain genetic features of a cancer, mutations responsible for “driving” that cancer’s expansion. These targeted therapies have prices of €100,000 (roughly 117,500 USD) to €150,000 (roughly 176,300 USD) annually or for a course of treatment. Our critical question: Must a commitment to solidarity mean that all these targeted cancer therapies are included in a benefit package guaranteed to all in the European Union, no matter the cost, no matter the degree of effectiveness? Such a commitment would imply that cancer was ethically special, rightfully commandeering unlimited resources. That in itself undermines solidarity. I offered multiple examples of how current and future dissemination of these drugs challenges a commitment to solidarity. An alternative is to fund more cancer prevention efforts. However, that too proves a threat to solidarity. Solidarity is too abstract a notion to address these challenges. We need instead the notion of “just solidarity.” We need to accept that we can only hope to achieve “rough justice” and “supple solidarity.” The precise practical meaning of these notions needs to be worked out through fair and inclusive processes of rational democratic deliberation, which is the real foundation of solidarity.
Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has an article in the July 2019 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. “Precision QALYs, Precisely Unjust” addresses issues of health care justice and cost effectiveness.
Abstract: Warwick Heale has recently defended the notion of individualized and personalized Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) in connection with health care resource allocation decisions. Ordinarily, QALYs are used to make allocation decisions at the population level. If a health care intervention costs £100,000 and generally yields only two years of survival, the cost per QALY gained will be £50,000, far in excess of the £30,000 limit per QALY judged an acceptable use of resources within the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. However, if we know with medical certainty that a patient will gain four extra years of life from that intervention, the cost per QALY will be £25,000. Heale argues fairness and social utility require such a patient to receive that treatment, even though all others in the cohort of that patient might be denied that treatment (and lose two years of potential life). Likewise, Heale argues that personal commitments of an individual (religious or otherwise), that determine how they value a life-year with some medical intervention, ought to be used to determine the value of a QALY for them. I argue that if Heale’s proposals were put into practice, the result would often be greater injustice. In brief, requirements for the just allocation of health care resources are more complex than pure cost-effectiveness analysis would allow.
The full text is available online via Cambridge University Press (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).
Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck recently presented at the 2019 International Bioethics Retreat, held in Paris, France on June 26-28. Dr. Fleck chaired a session titled “In the Clinic” which featured topics on clinical ethics and medical decision-making.
In a session titled “Elder Ethics,” Dr. Fleck presented a talk on “Whither Frailty: Ethical, Economic, Medical and Policy Challenges.” Dr. Fleck addressed four key questions: (1) How should frailty be defined as a medical phenomenon? (2) What should be the scope and limits of respect for autonomy in the case of the frail elderly? (3) What should be the scope and limits of acceptable risk of harm to the frail elderly in the case of aggressive medical or surgical interventions? This question pertains to the responsibilities of physicians and surgeons in proposing such interventions. (4) What issues of health care justice deserve the attention of policymakers when it comes to meeting the health care needs of the frail elderly?
The first problem refers to the complexity of frailty as a medical phenomenon. Frailty is not disability; frailty is primarily associated with the elderly. Some researchers describe frailty as “accelerated aging.” Roughly 38% of individuals over age 90 would be described as being frail. Individuals may be frail and not have any life-threatening medical problems. Most of the frail elderly are able to make medical decisions for themselves, which is why there is the ethical issue of respect for patient autonomy versus justified medical paternalism. Among the behavioral traits of the frail elderly would be reduced activity (prolonged bed rest), very slow mobility, weight loss, extreme old age, diminished handgrip strength, polypharmacy, and social isolation. Clearly, frailty exists along a complex spectrum requiring considerable acuity of judgment to avoid ethical missteps.
To illustrate the potential for ethical missteps, labeling an elderly individual as “frail” can result in inappropriate paternalistic decisions, negative stereotypes, and discrimination. Alternatively, failure to identify an elderly individual as frail can result in overly aggressive medical treatment (and a range of avoidable medical harms) as well as a lack of attention (and resources) that might better address the social needs of the frail elderly that would represent a greater net benefit than aggressive medical treatment.
We might wish to go to the research literature for some guidance. However, there is little actual research regarding the frail elderly and aggressive medical or surgical care. Further, it is difficult to imagine how such research could be accomplished in a way that was not ethically problematic. This makes the responsibilities of physicians in clinical practice who care for the frail elderly all the more challenging.
Dr. Fleck concluded with two points: (1) From the perspective of health care justice, from the perspective of what a just and caring society ought to do, resources should be redirected from aggressive medical care for the frail elderly to their social service needs. However, the fragmented system for financing health care in the U.S. gets in the way of easily making this re-allocation of resources. (2) Soft paternalism will often be ethically justified in caring for the frail elderly considering aggressive medical care. A non-committal stance on the part of physicians in these circumstances, under the ethical guise of respect for patient autonomy, will most often be neither just, nor caring, nor respectful of patient needs and their considered values.
Center Professor Dr. Len Fleck recently traveled to Bergen, Norway to present a keynote address at the 6th Annual Centre for Cancer Biomarkers (CCBIO) Symposium. Dr. Fleck’s presentation, “Just Caring Challenges: Visible Biomarkers and Invisible Rationing,” addressed some of the critical ethical issues related to the use of biomarkers in cancer research and clinical care.
Dr. Fleck addressed two main problems in his lecture. First, the ragged edge problem. One of the primary purposes of finding biomarkers is to determine whether a cancer drug is likely to be effective for a particular metastatic cancer patient. However, rarely will a biomarker yield a simple answer. Most often, the biomarker will be expressed along a continuum. If a drug were very inexpensive and side effects tolerable, it would be easy to say that the ethically right choice would be to respect patient autonomy. But these drugs all cost more than $100,000 for a course of treatment. Consequently, if a drug has a 20% chance of having a beneficial effect, there is a conflict between considerations of justice and respect for patient autonomy. Invisible rationing (just not offering the drug to the patient) can bypass this conflict, but invisible rationing is ethically problematic so far as justice is concerned.
Secondly, recent liquid biopsies can identify eight common cancers at a very early stage–in the form of circulating cancer cells in the blood–at a cost of $500. However, the critical question would need to be raised: How often would 170 million adults (all anxious about cancer) in the U.S. have a just claim to access that test? Every six months? Every year? Note that each such offering of that test to that population would cost $85 billion. Would that represent either a just or prudent use of health care resources?
The CCBIO symposium was well-attended by an international mix of junior and senior researchers and scholars. Dr. Fleck had the opportunity to meet with many European researchers to discuss their respective work in the field of cancer research.
Dr. Fleck also gave a public lecture at the University of Bergen’s Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, titled “Precision Medicine, Ethical Ambiguity: Rough Justice, Ragged Edges.” Dr. Fleck addressed precision medicine as it currently exists, in particular the costly FDA-approved targeted cancer therapies. Treatments for patients with metastatic cancers, which are not curative, can cost $100,000 to $475,000 per treatment course. For example, 30% of patients who are candidates for CAR T-cell immunotherapy will not gain more than an extra year of life. As things are now, we do not know before the fact who those patients might be. But one goal of biomarker research is to identify before the fact who those marginal responders most likely will be, so that we could save money by denying those patients access to this therapy. As a citizen of a just and caring society, would you endorse the research to accomplish that result? Why or why not? This is what Dr. Fleck calls “rough justice.”
Center Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has a new article published in the April 2018 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The article, “Controlling Healthcare Costs: Just Cost Effectiveness or “Just” Cost Effectiveness?,” appears in a special section on justice, healthcare, and wellness.
Abstract: Meeting healthcare needs is a matter of social justice. Healthcare needs are virtually limitless; however, resources, such as money, for meeting those needs, are limited. How then should we (just and caring citizens and policymakers in such a society) decide which needs must be met as a matter of justice with those limited resources? One reasonable response would be that we should use cost effectiveness as our primary criterion for making those choices. This article argues instead that cost-effectiveness considerations must be constrained by considerations of healthcare justice. The goal of this article will be to provide a preliminary account of how we might distinguish just from unjust or insufficiently just applications of cost-effectiveness analysis to some healthcare rationing problems; specifically, problems related to extraordinarily expensive targeted cancer therapies. Unconstrained compassionate appeals for resources for the medically least well-off cancer patients will be neither just nor cost effective.
The full text is available online through Cambridge University Press (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).
A new book review by Center Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has been published in the September/October 2017 Hastings Center Report. Titled “Despairing about Health Disparities,” Dr. Fleck reviews the book Understanding Health Inequalities and Justice: New Conversations across the Disciplines, edited by Mara Buchbinder, Michele Rivkin-Fish, and Rebecca Walker (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
Abstract: I have never doubted that the problem of inequalities in health status and access to needed care is a difficult ethical and political challenge. After reading the essays in Understanding Health Inequalities and Justice: New Conversations across the Disciplines, edited by Mara Buchbinder, Michele Rivkin-Fish, and Rebecca Walker, I concluded that despair was the only suitable response in the face of daunting ethical and political complexity. The editors of this volume have three questions in mind that they asked contributors to address. (1) How do scholars from various disciplines approach relations between health inequalities and ideals of justice? Social scientists want to offer empirical descriptions of inequalities in health status across a range of social groups, but there are numerous ways of offering such descriptions. Are they all “correct”? Philosophers and medical ethicists want to make normative judgments regarding which inequalities matter, ethically speaking. So (2) do we need to know when considerations of justice are relevant to assessing health inequalities and which considerations of justice are most relevant in specific contexts? Ultimately, (3) the question is which of these scholarly approaches is most useful for improving health policy.
The full text is available via Wiley Online Library (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).