Antiseptic Rhetoric: Crisis Standards of Care

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

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.

Hospital bed illustration
Image description: A grey and white illustration of a single empty hospital bed sitting underneath a light that is shining down onto the bed. Image source: Izwar Muis/Pixabay.

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.

Here is another headline that better elucidates the meaning of crisis standards of care. “After 169 hospitals, a dad finally got the Covid-19 care he needed—and changed dozens of skeptics’ minds.” Robby Walker, age 52, needed ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) to save his life—to serve as an artificial heart and lungs for him. That was in Florida. He ended up being transported by air to a hospital in Connecticut that had an ECMO bed. Readers should realize that this could hardly be the fate of hundreds of other COVID-19 patients needing ECMO. Reed Hickson, age 49 and the father of twelve in Texas, was unable to find an available ECMO bed in all of Texas. He died. That is what “crisis standards of care” means in practice.

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.

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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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Continue reading “Antiseptic Rhetoric: Crisis Standards of Care”

Karen Kelly-Blake presents at American Sociological Association annual conference

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Center Assistant Director and Associate Professor Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD, recently presented at the 116th American Sociological Association Virtual Annual Meeting, held August 6-10, 2021. Dr. Kelly-Blake was an invited panelist for the session “Racism: A Pre-existing Health Condition.” Her presentation was entitled “A Question of Justice: The Covert Costs of Racial/Ethnic Concordance in the Medical Workforce.”

Over the past century U.S. medical workforce demographics have shifted. Moving away from a white male dominated profession, there has been a “widening capacity” trend toward increasing gender, ethnic, racial, and linguistic representation. Commonly, that push is linked to notions of desirable doctor/patient identity matching, described here as “concordance.” Notably that trend is accompanied by rhetoric covertly shaping the professional lives of Black, Indigenous, and Latino physicians underrepresented in medicine (URiM). Improving patient trust, access and health outcomes are frequently mentioned benefits figuring into such parity rhetoric. Indeed, URiM physicians provide a substantial proportion of medical care to the underserved. Quite possibly such workforce patterns reflect focused altruism to serve “one’s own.” Paradoxically, policy initiatives that influence URiM’s futures in the medical workforce may well carry hidden unanticipated consequences.

Dr. Kelly-Blake reported on the findings of a 2000-2015 scoping literature review considering the nature of medical workforce policy strategies. She posed the question of whether those strategies might not unevenly affect URiM physicians, selectively placing service expectations not similarly placed on their White counterparts. Findings suggest that selectively placing service expectations not similarly placed on their White counterparts along with unexamined assumptions of racial/ethnic concordance between patient and physician may place an undue burden on URiMs disproportionately tasked with ameliorating persistent inequities in our health care system.

To learn more about Dr. Kelly-Blakes work on this topic, listen to our podcast episode Medical Workforce Diversity and the Professional Entry Tax: Bogdan-Lovis and Kelly-Blake – Episode 6.

What do LGBTQ patients want from their healthcare providers?

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The 2020-2021 Bioethics Public Seminar Series continues later this month with a panel of MSU alumni. You are invited to join us virtually – events will not take place in person. Our seminars are free to attend and open to all individuals.

Controversies and Complexities in LGBTQ Health Care

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Do you feel prepared to provide excellent care to your LGBTQ patients? Calls for social justice and corrective actions are being mounted by various and intersectional constituencies. These calls for social change must be reflected in improved clinical care, as well. What do LGBTQ patients want from their healthcare providers? Health professionals often think that they do not serve LGBTQ+ people, but Williams Institute data reports about 3-10% of the U.S. population of adults, depending on state, identify as a sexual and gender minority person. What are some of the ethical and clinical challenges that clinicians and patients face? This seminar will address these broadly understood health issues that impact the LGBTQ community, as we aim toward an inclusive and equitable health delivery system. Bring your questions and take part in this exciting and timely conversation with a panel of MSU alumni.

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Join us for this online lecture on Wednesday, January 27, 2021 from noon until 1 pm ET.

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Dr. Emily Antoon-Walsh

Emily Antoon-Walsh, MD, MA, FAAP (she/her), is a board-certified pediatrician who specializes in the care of hospitalized infants, children and adolescents. She graduated from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 2013 with an MD and an MA from the Bioethics, Humanities and Society program. She completed her pediatric residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital/University of Washington. As a medical student she worked to improve medical education around LGBTQ issues. As a resident she interviewed trans youth and their parents about barriers to gender-affirming care. She now practices hospital pediatric medicine, which presents special challenges and also privileges in providing LGBTQ-affirming care for families. She works in a community hospital in Olympia, WA, where she lives with her wife and child who is a true Pacific Northwest baby and loves the outdoors on the rainiest, cloudiest of days.

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Dr. Barry DeCoster

Barry DeCoster, PhD (he/him), is an Associate Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. His research interests focus on the overlapping areas of bioethics and philosophy of science & medicine. DeCoster is interested in how vulnerable patients—such as LGBTQ health, racial minority health, and women’s health—engage and respond to the particular needs of their communities. He is also interested in the lingering impact of the medicalization of LGBTQ health and how queer patients are themselves constructed as both ethical and epistemic agents. Dr. DeCoster received his B.S. in Biotechnology & Humanities from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Michigan State University. He spent much time working at MSU’s Center for Ethics as a grad student, and remembers that time fondly as a source of mentorship. Dr. DeCoster enjoyed the opportunity to teach fantastic students for three years at MSU’s Lyman Briggs College.

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Dr. Henry Ng

Henry Ng, MD, MPH, FAAP, FACP (he/they), is a physician, educator and advocate for LGBTQ health. Dr. Ng has been involved in LGBTQ health care since 2007 and he is currently a physician in the Center for LGBTQ+ Health and the Transgender Surgery and Medicine Program at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. He completed his BS and his MD at Michigan State University. He completed his residency and chief residency in Internal Medicine/Pediatrics at MetroHealth Medical Center. In 2012, he completed a Master’s in Public Health degree at Case Western Reserve University with an emphasis on Health Promotion/Disease Prevention for LGBT populations. He served as an associate editor for the journal LGBT Health and is a senior associate editor for the journal Annals of LGBTQ Public and Population Health.

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded! Visit our archive of recorded lecturesTo receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our mailing list.

Dr. Fleck published in ‘Hastings Center Report’ on Black Lives Matter and inequities in the U.S. healthcare system

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In the current issue of the Hastings Center Report, Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck shared a perspective on “Some Lives Matter: The Dirty Little Secret of the U.S. Health Care System.”

Abstract: Our health care system in the United States reflects the inequities that are part of the larger society, which is why our system for financing access to needed and effective health care is so complicated and unfair.

Visit the journal’s website for free access to the full text. Dr. Fleck is one of more than 200 Hastings Center Fellows.

“There’s no proof that anything works!” The ethics of COVID-19 research

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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.

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Image description: An illustration of a health care worker wearing blue scrubs, head covering, and face covering. Surrounding them are a stethoscope, face mask, syringe and surgical tools, thermometer, and microscope. The background is light pink. Image source: sunshine-91/Vecteezy.

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 photoRobyn 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.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 3, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: Philosophy, Mental Illness, and Mass Shootings; “Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?Antibiotics: No Clear CourseTo Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question

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Women cannot afford “nice”: The unpaid labor of gendered caregiving

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Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde

Much has been written about finding meaning in illness. Others have written about finding meaning in caregiving. But taking care of someone else’s s!#t has its own intrinsic meaning, and for much of the time, it’s not all good.

For some, doing this work may allow them redemption—to repent for past wrongs, or it might allow them to display their humanity in ways they have not done before. Some may experience joy with self-sacrifice. I wish you well. Amid the crucible, women are performing all sorts of gendered work, and especially gendered care work. What do I mean by that? Women perform the majority of caregiving work to family and friends, i.e. women are the ones taking care of someone else’s s!#t. This work is unpaid, labor intensive, and career limiting if not career destroying.

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Image description: An illustration of a faceless woman with six arms, each arm holding objects that represent a particular set of tasks: correspondence, computer work, food, entertainment, cleaning, and childcare. Image source: Multitasking Vectors by Vecteezy.

Care work offers few rewards, but it is necessary, and it is often silently expected of women. Unpaid labor that diminishes or denies opportunity for growth and sustenance is unfair, unjust, unsustainable, and wrong. Caregiver resilience may be a thing but is most likely a statement of privilege. Women do the work to the detriment of self-care, careers, outside friendships and interests, and other family relationships. Un- and under-paid gendered care work is a real and present danger to the overall wellbeing of women. As a society, we cannot keep telling women that this kind of gender discrimination in care work, especially for their family, is okay. It is not okay. Women must acknowledge all the ugliness that comes with taking care of someone else’s s!#t—the resentment, anger, frustration, disappointment, loss, fear, disgust, exhaustion, defeat.

So, who will do this work?

Dare I say, salaried home health assistants with all the benefits afforded fully employed persons—health insurance, retirement, educational assistance, PTO, etc. BUT then, who will do that work? Women, and more specifically women of color and immigrants. Whether women do it as unpaid family labor or as salaried health aides, women do care work. It may be reasonable to assume that the salaried worker may be better able to handle the emotional demands of the work. The unpaid family care worker is burdened with history, regrets, slights, insults, lies, disappointments, unforgiven and unforgivable acts, whereas the salaried care worker is not burdened with that baggage, and thus, may be a better and perhaps even a more caring caregiver. Absent the burden and weight of historical relationship bonds, women—as daughters, sisters, spouses, and mothers—may be able to find meaning in just being themselves.

Although the inequity of gendered work has always been there, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed revealing light on this inequity, just as it has on racism. Women are performing job duties remotely from home, becoming teachers, chefs, activity directors, housekeeping staff, laundry workers, and of course the calm in the storm, etc. Working the second shift does not go far enough in describing that reality—women hold on average about 100 jobs that are unpaid! These jobs historically have been the purview of women, but gendered work in the home is the cause of much friction in marriages. Moreover, women are balancing care of children with the care of parents, at times both their own and those of their spouse. Those women fortunate enough to retain their jobs and work remotely were immediately immersed in work that was unfamiliar and, in many cases, unwanted—24/7 care and attention to children, spouses, and others. For those caring for the ill, the disabled (mentally, physically, or cognitively), or the aged, or any individual with any range of functional and psychological limitation, the pandemic significantly increased the workload. Many people do this care work because they want to, out of whatever love and obligation they have for the care receiver. For others, there is no one else to do the work and it may feel, and indeed be, life limiting. Engaging in this work during a pandemic is especially challenging.

Oftentimes, a crash course in highly technical aspects of care (flushing ports, inserting feeding tubes, cleaning wounds, managing LVADs, etc.) leaves one completely bewildered. This disjuncture between necessary specialized care exposes the schism in care work that overwhelms and burdens.

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Image description: Image description: A woman sits on the floor leaning against the back of a couch. Her elbows are resting on her knees with her hands clasped together over her face, eyes closed. Image source: Pixabay.

Because of shelter-in-place orders, the pandemic has also heightened concerns about domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and alcohol and substance use disorders. We consequently will need to ramp up behavioral health and trauma-informed care services. Sadly, history predicts how unlikely we are to effectively meet this challenge. Essential caregivers unable to work remotely have had to expose themselves and their children to increased risk of disease, because their children had to remain in daycare or in multigenerational spaces with no means to isolate.

Gendered care work can no longer hide under the auspices of family love and selflessness. Caregivers oftentimes die before the care receiver. There is nothing heroic or laudable about a preventable early death. Too much togetherness can breed resentment. There is always something needed, an ask or a want. There is little give in return. Even a sincerely offered “thank you” neither diminishes nor alleviates profound fatigue.

How do we mitigate the harmful effects of such inequitable gendered expectations?

  • Recognize the gender inequity of care work and the harm such blindness inflicts.
  • Pave the way for long-term care access, regulation, and insurance.
  • Pay care workers (both in institutional and home health settings) a salary with PTO, retirement, and benefits (educational and promotion opportunities).
  • Provide paid family leave for family and friend care workers, so that they can focus on the care work they want to do without worrying about economic self-harm.
  • Ensure enhanced respite care and family mental health support.

Taking care of someone else’s s!#t is hard, labor-intensive work, both physically and mentally, and it must be recognized as such. We can no longer silently accept the gender discrimination inherent in care work. We all must bear the burden and the weight, and take care of each other’s s!#t.

Disclaimers: The title is gendered caregiving, which, for the purposes of this blog, focuses on the traditional gender binary of women and men doing caregiving. While clearly in the minority, men do provide unpaid care work. I afford no special credit for doing this work because one is a man. It is akin to saying, “my husband is babysitting the kids”—um, no they are doing the hard work of parenting. My goal is to highlight the burden of care work that is performed primarily by women. Women do not get gold stars for work that they have historically been expected to do.

The author acknowledges her own lifelong role as a caregiver. I do not aim to speak to every person’s experience with doing this work. Instead, I seek to highlight that the continued gender inequity and unpaid labor of care work harms women. If we are to be a just society, it is imperative for us to take care of the caregivers.

Karen Kelly-Blake photoKaren Kelly-Blake, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Medicine in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, July 30, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Kelly-Blake: The Burden of Serving: Who Benefits?; Patient dumping: why are patients disposable?Incarcerated AND Sick: At Risk for Pain, Injury, and DeathWhite Horse, White Faces: The Decriminalization of Heroin AddictionRacism and the Public’s Health: Whose Lives Matter?Concussion in the NFL: A Case for Shared Decision-Making?

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Commentary from Dr. Fleck published in ‘Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics’

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Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has a commentary in the July 2020 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. The commentary is titled “Medical Ethics: A Distinctive Species of Ethics.”

Dr. Fleck writes, “Like the sciences, medical ethics has evolved with its own distinctive ethical norms and understandings as a result of emerging technologies (ICUs, organ transplantation, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and so on) as well as chancing political, economic, and organizational structures and practices relevant to health care.”

The full text is available online via Cambridge Core (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Bioethics for Breakfast: Can Pharmaceutical Cost Control Be Achieved Ethically with Surgical Precision?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyPaula Cunningham and Craig Hunter presented at the February 6th Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Health Reform: Can Pharmaceutical Cost Control Be Achieved Ethically with Surgical Precision?”

This year’s Bioethics for Breakfast series is focused on a central theme: “Is There a Cure for Our Sick Health Care System?” The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

There is virtually unanimous agreement among health policy analysts that something must be done to control health care costs, especially pharmaceutical costs, which are often a major burden for the elderly. Consumers and taxpayers are also demanding that health care costs be controlled and reduced, most often with regard to drugs. This is why the recent focus has been on the price of drugs. However, any practical proposal to reduce drug health care costs has been denounced as rationing and/or as a threat to medical innovation. The result has been political inertia and economic exuberance (for for-profit health care corporations), with $3.8 trillion in U.S. health spending in 2019 and projections of $6.0 trillion total health spending for 2027. What forms of drug-related health care cost control are you willing to accept for yourself and those you care about? What do you see as the ethical challenges that must be addressed by any effort to control such health care costs, especially for the elderly?

Speaker Paula Cunningham, State Director of AARP Michigan, highlighted the struggles that people in Michigan face regarding the price of prescription drugs, noting that some individuals travel to Canada because the cost there is drastically lower. Cunningham shared the AARP “Stop Rx Greed” campaign as an example of their advocacy work in this area. She also noted that there are several pieces of legislation being worked on in Michigan and at the national level, such as an importation bill, that would reduce prescription drug costs. She finally stressed that this issue is not just about data and facts, it is about people’s lives.

Speaker Craig Hunter, Director of Specialty Program Outcomes and Analytics for CVS Health, brought industry expertise to the discussion and provided an economic perspective on the issue. He shared three main points, the first being that we need to rethink the question “can medical outcomes be achieved ethically with surgical precision?” because economic structures in the U.S. are not set up in a way that drives synergy. Hunter then discussed the need for structural changes to encourage creative solutions. When asking those in attendance if they believed that drugs in the U.S. are a public good, a minority responded in agreement. Hunter pointed out that this question has been answered very differently in other countries. Finally, Hunter noted that, regardless of “right or wrong,” the market is responding to its own stimulus; the business has been incentivised for certain outcomes.

Attendee questions and comments came from a variety of perspectives, including physicians, legislative staff, and community leaders. There was discussion of direct-to-consumer advertising, drug patents, and the barriers that exist for the consumer within this complex system.

About the Speakers

Paula Cunningham
Paula Cunningham, MLIR, is State Director of AARP Michigan, which has more than 1.4 million members. She is former President of Lansing Community College, and in the business community was CEO of Capitol National Bank. She serves on numerous boards, including, but not limited to, Davenport University and McLaren Health Systems-Lansing. Paula is in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and was the first African American woman in the country to be president of a majority owned bank.

Craig Hunter
Craig Hunter is the Director of Specialty Program Outcomes and Analytics for CVS Health, providing leadership and oversight for outcomes-based financial reconciliations negotiated across specialty drug and patient management products. Previously Craig worked at Eli Lilly, first as the Lead Outcomes Scientist for the U.S. Alzheimer’s and Oncology franchises, and later leading U.S. Outcomes Customer Engagement. Additional previous experience includes time consulting as well as Primary Investigator for a USAID-funded project examining the intersection of traditional and western medicine in South Africa. Craig earned his MPP from the University of Chicago and a BA in Communications (Rhetoric)/Political Science from Furman University.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Our Sick Health Care System: What’s the Differential Diagnosis?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyLaura Appel and Marti Lolli presented at the December 5th Bioethics for Breakfast event, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Our Sick Health Care System: What’s the Differential Diagnosis?”

This year’s Bioethics for Breakfast series centers on the theme “Is There a Cure for Our Sick Health Care System?” The series is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

Our health care system is exhibiting multiple symptoms of serious illness. Treating symptoms is rarely a good idea. What we need is a differential diagnosis. What are the root causes for skyrocketing costs, increasing access barriers, physician burnout, patient non-adherence and dis-satisfaction, failed therapies, and so on? Too many greedy profit-takers? Too many stingy insurers? Too much administrative bureaucracy? Too much competition? Too little competition? Too much unhealthy behavior by patients? Too little time for patients? Too much technology? Large empathy deficits? Too little prevention? Too many medical specialists? Too few primary care physicians? Not enough evidence-based medicine? Too much waste and inefficiency? Too many hospital mergers? Too fragmented a financing system? Patients demanding too much care? Unregulated drug prices? Too many special interests shaping health care policy?

Addressing these questions, Priority Health’s Marti Lolli first emphasized that these challenges are complex and cannot be simplified. She posited that there is enough money in the system—collectively we must get creative. In “diagnosing” our health care system, she put forward three items: 1) radically overhaul the fee-for-service system, 2) move away from the “one size fits all” health care model, and 3) accept data, technology, and transparency.

Michigan Health & Hospital Association’s Laura Appel then shared her perspective. Her three-item “diagnosis” began with the first point that there is a focus on health care when the underlying problem is health. One example she gave was that kidney disease in Michigan cost Medicaid $1 billion, stating, “We cannot change the output if we don’t change the input.” Her second item was that we don’t really have a “system,” also discussing the need for more behavioral health resources. Her third item focused on evidence, and that overall, to have a “system,” the system needs to respond to the evidence, recognizing what needs to change.

 
Attendee questions and comments addressed a variety of topics, including caregiver education, advance care planning, evidence-based medicine in practice, and social and structural determinants of health. Finally, one overarching point that those in attendance seemed to agree on: change is hard.

Marti Lolli Laura Appel and Leonard Fleck speaking to audience
Image description: pictured left to right are Marti Lolli, Laura Appel, and Leonard Fleck during the question and answers portion of Bioethics for Breakfast on December 5. Image source: Liz McDaniel/Center for Ethics.

About the Speakers

Laura Appel
Laura Appel is senior vice president and chief innovation officer at the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. She focuses on healthcare policy, hospital finance, legislation and governance. At the federal level, she represents the interests of Michigan hospitals and health systems in both the legislative and regulatory arenas on key issues, including federal healthcare reform and Medicare. She is an expert in auto insurance and legislative policy and has a proven ability to influence legislation and healthcare policy through her understanding of the issues, educating influencers and policymakers, and introducing fresh ideas.

Marti Lolli, MBA
Marti Lolli is chief marketing officer and senior vice president of consumer and government markets at Priority Health, a nationally recognized health plan. She oversees the individual market, Medicare advantage and Medicaid markets, and market intelligence. She also oversees all marketing, digital strategy, communications and customer experience at Priority Health. Her areas of expertise include consumerism in health care, market trends in health care, competitive and consumer analytics, health care reform, health care innovation and strategic planning.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

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.