Dr. Fleck presents on public funding for whole genome sequencing at International Bioethics Retreat

Leonard Fleck photo

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.

Dr. Fleck presents on elder ethics at International Bioethics Retreat in Paris

Leonard Fleck photoCenter 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.

Drs. Eijkholt and Fleck present at International Bioethics Retreat in Paris

Marleen Eijkholt photoLeonard Fleck photoCenter Professor Len Fleck and Marleen Eijkholt, former Assistant Professor with the Center, recently presented at the 2018 International Bioethics Retreat, held in Paris, France on June 27-29. The conference has been sponsored by Cambridge University for the past eighteen years.

Dr. Fleck presented on “Personalized Medicine? Precision Medicine? What is Just Enough?” He addressed a question raised by Warwick Heale in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Heale was writing about the use of a quality-adjusted life year (QALY) cost-effectiveness methodology to make allocation decisions in health care. Heale identifies himself as a utilitarian. He generally wants to obtain the most medical good for a population group at the lowest cost. However, Heale notes that the use of this methodology is about averages for a population group. He wants to argue that if a population group cannot be treated cost-effectively with some very costly cancer drug, then it would be unjust to deny that drug to any individuals in that group whom we could identify before the fact who would benefit very significantly and cost-effectively from that drug. This has a certain intuitive moral reasonableness about it.

However, Fleck argued Heale’s proposal has some morally problematic aspects as well. He asked his audience to consider Laurel and Hardy. Both have the same medical problem; both would benefit from access to a certain costly drug. The quantity of the drug is administered on the basis of weight. It is clear that the drug is cost-effective for the average 70 kilogram person. Laurel weighs 57 kilograms. The drug is even more cost-effective for him. But Hardy weighs 90 kilograms; the drug would not be cost-effective if given to him. The logic of Heale’s position would require denying the drug to Hardy. This would strike most physicians (as well as most patients) as clearly unjust, especially if we were talking about a drug that was not absolutely scarce.

Heale wrote this paper to suggest a better approach to allocating money from the UK Conservative government’s Cancer Drug Fund, which was mostly without ethical moorings for several years. However, Fleck concluded that Heale’s proposal might effectively address the economic challenges faced by the Cancer Drug Fund while adding to the moral challenges intrinsic to the creation of the fund in the first place.

Dr. Eijkholt spoke on “Medicine’s Collusion with False Hope: False Hope Harm.” She proposed a new argument to think about interventions that are offered for consumer demands rather than for medical reasons: i.e. the False Hope Harm. She proposed that hope serves important functions in medicine. Hope can be “therapeutic” and important for patients to “self-identity as active agents.” However, in consumer medicine, like in much of the U.S. health care context, hope could also take on a different role. Scenarios like Jahi McMath and Charlie Gard make us wonder if hope can be harmful too. In fields like stem cell medicine or cancer treatment, where providers justify their support for medical interventions with “it will make them feel better,” we can also identify the risk of such harm. While one might argue that we should not deny anyone such hope in the face of emotionally vivid stories, Dr. Eijkholt argued that the profession has an obligation to avoid false hope harms.