Bioethics for Breakfast: Demystifying End-of-Life Care

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, and Karen Smith, LMSW, PhD, HEC-C, presented at the October 13 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering their insight and expertise on the topic “Demystifying End-of-Life Care.” Bioethics for Breakfast is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman. The presentation portion of the session was recorded and is available to watch on our website.

The State of Michigan has recently approved the MI POST (Michigan Physician Order for Scope of Treatment), which allows a patient and physician to have in place directions (orders) on care to go between levels of treatment. Such orders typically specify the kind of care a terminally ill patient would want or refuse in an emergency situation outside a hospital setting. Such orders are agreed to by a competent patient or their representative and the attending physician. A POST document is often part of a larger advance care planning document.

Most patients do not have an advance directive or a POST. What happens when that patient is actively dying and the attending physician believes a Do Not Attempt Resuscitation order (DNAR) is in the best interest of that patient? Should that decision by the physician require the written consent of the patient’s family for that DNAR order? And what are the consequences for the patient if the family cannot reach agreement? If you were that patient, what would you regard as the most reasonable course of action? How would you ensure your wishes are followed?

Presenters Fleck and Smith gave some background on what it means to have a natural death and a managed death, noting that the majority of Americans today die a managed death. Smith explained that durable power of attorney and MI POST are the two state-authorized methods for directing end-of-life wishes. Fleck asked attendees to consider the following questions: Are the policies and practices in place regarding terminally ill incapacitated patients good enough? Are they the best we can do? What might we do better? What do we see as the main deficiencies in current policy and practice?

The presentation also explored how policy can protect patients and prevent suffering at the end of life and presented multiple case examples regarding terminal care in the ICU. Discussion during the Q&A portion focused on family disagreements in the ICU, the value of healthcare literacy and common misconceptions that stem from popular culture, and what happens when the court system is involved with end-of-life decisions.

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About the speakers

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a Professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. 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.

Karen Smith, LMSW, PhD, HEC-C, has been a member of hospital ethics committees for over 20 years. She is currently the Director of Ethics Integration for Henry Ford Health, a six-hospital system in metro Detroit. Smith publishes on issues related to clinical ethics the hospital setting. She specializes in death and dying issues and often works to educate the public on Advance Directive issues. She has been on the National Board for the Funeral Consumers Alliance which is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing the public education and advocacy related to after death needs.

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

Bioethics Public Seminar Series green and white icon

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2022
1:30-2:30 PM EST (UTC−05:00)
Zoom webinar registration: bit.ly/bioethics-fleck

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

Leonard M. FLeck

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

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded and available in our archive of recorded lectures. To receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our email list.

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

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

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

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

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

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

Who is the ideal audience of this book?

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

How would you broadly define precision medicine?

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

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

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

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

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brews and Views returns, addresses “the science and ethics of IVF and artificial wombs”

Can society and the judicial system keep pace with the technologies of in vitro fertilization (IVF), stem cell biology, artificial wombs, and in vitro gestation?

Simple green line drawing depicting a fetus and its umbilical cord inside a circular womb.

On a Friday evening in late September, there was an obvious energy in the IQ Building atrium as faculty, staff, and researchers gathered for the first in-person Brews and Views event in well over two years. Chris Contag, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, noted this significance as he introduced the session on “Human Reproduction in a Dish: The Science and Ethics of IVF & Artificial Wombs.”

A panel of experts sat facing the audience, ready to share their perspectives on innovations to the science of human reproduction that could dramatically impact reproductive health. These experts were Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, associate professor, College of Law; Leonard Fleck, PhD, professor, Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, College of Human Medicine; Richard Leach, MD, professor and chair, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, College of Human Medicine; and Margaret Petroff, PhD, professor, Department of Pathobiology & Diagnostic Investigation, College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Leach, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist, explained new developments in human gamete derivation or in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) for IVF. Citing research on this process that has been successful in mice, he explained a future where it could be possible to create human embryos by taking an adult’s cells and reprogramming them into egg and sperm cells. Asking attendees to consider this possible future, he noted that there are already three companies in the U.S. and Japan related to IVG.

How far are we from this type of assisted reproductive technology (ART) existing? Dr. Margaret Petroff shared that there currently are 2.5 million IVF cycles per year—more than 500,000 babies born each year globally. Dr. Petroff stressed that there is still much to learn about long-term health effects of ART, and that long-term epidemiological studies are needed to learn about impacts of all types of ART.

What is it that makes us human? Dr. Jennifer Carter-Johnson, who is an associate professor of law with a background in microbiology, asked attendees to think about how life is defined—ethically, scientifically, legally. She noted that there is no good definition, that discussing human life is legally ambiguous. In contrast, there is legal precedent about when human life ends. Dr. Carter-Johnson discussed the complexities and unknowns related to the June 2022 Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Individual U.S. states are now making different decisions about access to abortion, and about how a person is defined. If life were to be legally defined as beginning at conception, that would greatly impact the current and future use of IVF and ART.

Philosopher and medical ethicist Dr. Leonard Fleck introduced the idea of an artificial womb and what medical purpose it would serve were it to exist. In theory an artificial womb might be used to save a fetus that was going to be born before viability, or by someone without a uterus. He characterized it as a micro version of a neonatal intensive care unit. The idea of an artificial womb brought up a wide variety of ethical questions related to abortion, who has the right to make decisions about a fetus in an artificial womb, and the high cost of the use of such technology creating access barriers and utilizing limited healthcare resources.

One message from the panelists in the discussion that followed was the importance of thinking about guidelines for this technology now, rather than waiting. The complexity of the topic continued to be apparent—legal, ethical, scientific, safety, health policy, and societal implications.

The question and answer portion brought forth more unique perspectives, demonstrated with both passion and vulnerability from panelists and attendees.

“We can only see a limited distance into the future when trying to assess new technologies,” stated Dr. Fleck. The event generated more questions than answers, but that is the very nature of the mission of Brews and Views. Though the event had officially ended, the room remained abuzz with conversation.

While Brews and Views continued virtually during 2020 and 2021, this event was not only the first in-person offering is years, but also the first that explored a non-COVID topic since the pandemic began. The series is an ongoing collaboration between the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering (IQ) and the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, and aims to hold moderated discussions addressing fascinating and provocative areas of bioscience and engineering.

New book from Leonard Fleck available for free through August 26: ‘Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion’

Leonard Fleck

Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion is a new book from Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck, PhD. Published this month by Cambridge University Press as part of the Cambridge Elements Bioethics and Neuroethics series, the book is available to read online for free until August 26.

Fleck explores Rawlsian political liberalism, the limits of religious integrity, and examines the issues of physician aid-in-dying, the use of embryos in medical research, abortion, and the artificial womb.

Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion book cover
Image description: The book cover of Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion by Leonard M. Fleck has art that is a light blue abstract painting with tones of yellow and red. Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

“Given the United States Supreme Court Dobbs decision, this volume is especially timely since it is doubtful that the Dobbs decision could pass the public reason test—though readers are free to disagree with that conclusion,” said Fleck.

Summary: Can religious arguments provide a reasonable, justified basis for restrictive (coercive) public policies regarding numerous ethically and politically controversial medical interventions, such as research with human embryos, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or using artificial wombs? With Rawls, we answer negatively. Liberally reasonable policies must address these controversial technologies on the basis of public reasons accessible to all, even if not fully agreeable by all. Further, public democratic deliberation requires participants to construct these policies as citizens who are agnostic with respect to the truth of all comprehensive doctrines, whether secular or religious. The goal of these deliberations is practical, namely, to identify reasonable policy options that reflect fair terms of cooperation in a liberal, pluralistic society. Further, religious advocates may participate in formal policymaking processes as reasonable liberal citizens. Finally, public reason evolves through the deliberative process and all the novel technological challenges medicine generates for bioethics and related public policies.

Print copies of the book are also available for pre-order. The volume is a slim paperback, clearly written, and accessible for an undergraduate bioethics course that addresses several of these controversial bioethics issues as matters for public policy decision-making.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Aducanumab, Alzheimer’s: Having That Conversation

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, and Irving E. Vega, PhD, presented at the March 24 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Aducanumab, Alzheimer’s: Having That Conversation.” Bioethics for Breakfast is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman. This session was the second of a two-part series on the theme “Paradoxes of Aging: Living Longer and Feeling Worse.” The presentation portion of the session was recorded and is available to watch on our website.

Aducanumab, a drug designed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, has been the focus of intense medical, scientific, social, and ethical controversy. The FDA Advisory Commission voted almost unanimously not to approve the drug. The research trials failed to show that aducanumab offered significant clinical benefit to patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and notably the enrollment of Black and Latino patients was disproportionately low. It came as a surprise that the FDA itself ultimately gave its approval to the drug, which costs $28,000 per year and is administered monthly through infusion in a hospital setting.

Fleck provided background on Aducanumab and the clinical trials carried out by the developer, Biogen, that led them to seek FDA approval. He defined the different stages of Alzheimer’s disease, noting that over six million Americans currently have been diagnosed with some degree of Alzheimer’s. Fleck also outlined the FDA’s approval process, including their vote to grant emergency use authorization with the expectation of phase four clinical trials completed within nine years. He also pointed out that Aducanumab’s effects are limited to mild cognitive impairment and mild Alzheimer’s, with no benefit in more advanced stages. However, there have been no other Alzheimer’s disease drugs in the past twenty years with promise of significant benefit.

Bringing up concerns of social justice, Fleck discussed the cost Aducanumab within U.S. health spending, particularly within the Medicare program. It is estimated that 85% of the estimated 3.1 million Americans with a mild Alzheimer’s diagnosis are Medicare eligible, meaning the annual cost to Medicare would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars for the drug and its associated costs. Fleck asked attendees to consider whether this spending would be a just use of limited health care resources.

Vega offered attendees questions to consider: is there sufficient evidence about the safety of the drug? Is there sufficient evidence about the effectiveness of the drug? Does the treatment address health disparities in Alzheimer’s disease? He discussed the biology of Alzheimer’s disease, outlining its effect on the brain, and pointing out what is still unknown about the disease. After defining scientific rigor, Vega walked attendees through concerns about the Aducanumab clinical trials, such as participant age and the inadequate representation of Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander populations.

Focusing on these disparities, Vega shared facts pertaining to Black Americans being twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s compared to non-Latino white Americans, and Latino Americans being 1.5 times as likely, compared to non-Latino white Americans. Disparities exist with increased likelihood of comorbidities like stroke, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Given these facts, Vega shared concern for observed adverse side effects of Aducanumab, particularly brain swelling, microbleeds, and slow brain bleeding.

Questions from attendees generation discussion about advocacy work, insurance companies, and direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer’s disease. Fleck and Vega noted the cost of care for an individual with Alzheimer’s, in a long term care facility, is typically in the $80,000-$100,000 range per year. Indirect costs include the lost wages of caregivers, and stress experienced by loved ones. Vega also importantly pointed out the context of the approval of Aducanumab: a global pandemic, COVID-19 vaccine development, and the subsequent spread of misinformation. Attendees also participated in polling questions with hypothetical situations, asking whether they agreed or disagreed with the scenarios. Responses were varied, highlighting the complexities of the topic.

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About the speakers

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. 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 been working on a book-length manuscript that addresses a number of ethical and policy issues related to precision medicine, primarily in a cancer treatment context.

Irving E. Vega, PhD, obtained his undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez Campus. He continued his research training in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the Graduate School of New Brunswick, Rutgers University, earning his PhD. Vega completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Neuroscience Department at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, where he developed his research career focusing on the pathobiology of Alzheimer’s disease. Vega joined the faculty as an associate professor in the Department of Translational Neuroscience at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine campus in Grand Rapids, MI in 2014. His research focuses on molecular and biochemical mechanisms that modulate the accumulation of pathological tau proteins in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Vega is also working on ethnic disparities and the influence of ethnoracial factors on blood biomarkers in Alzheimer’s disease.

Recent publications from Center faculty

Leonard Fleck photo

Center Professor Leonard Fleck, PhD, has had two articles published so far this year. Online ahead of print is “Precision medicine and the fragmentation of solidarity (and justice)” in the European journal Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. In the article Fleck “offer[s] multiple examples of how current and future dissemination of […] targeted cancer drugs threaten a commitment to solidarity.”

Fleck and co-author Leslie Francis, PhD, JD, were published in the most recent issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Their article debates the question: “Should Whole Genome Sequencing be Publicly Funded for Everyone as a Matter of Healthcare Justice?”

Sean Valles photo

In the February issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Center Director and Associate Professor Sean Valles, PhD, has a reply by the author in response to reviews of his 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. The book forum section of the issue includes three reviews of Valles’ book from Eric Mykhalovskiy, Quill R. Kukla, and Ross Upshur.

Leonard Fleck presents on cancer care at annual American Society for Bioethics and Humanities conference

Leonard Fleck photo

Last month at the 23rd Annual Conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), Center Professor Leonard Fleck, PhD, presented on “Precision Health, Ethical Ambiguity: How Much Cancer Can We Afford to Prevent?” as part of a session on health care allocation and cost. Dr. Fleck has provided a summary of his presentation below.

“Precision medicine” and “precision health” seem to complement one another. We want an effective targeted cancer therapy for our metastatic cancer, but would rationally prefer to prevent the emergence of a life-threatening cancer–the goal of precision health. In a recent book, The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, Azra Raza, an oncologist, argues that we are wasting tens of billions of dollars annually on extraordinarily expensive cancer therapies that yield only marginal gains in life expectancy. Raza believes these resources (not resources from heart disease or anything else) should be redirected to destroying cancer in its earliest stages, those “first cells.”

A new liquid biopsy (GRAIL) can detect 50 different cancers in very early stages by examining cell-free DNA at a cost of $800. However, 200 million anxious U.S. adults would be candidates for this test annually at an aggregate cost of $160 billion. From the perspective of health care justice, who should pay for these tests? Who should be denied access to these tests at social expense? Should only individuals with a strong family history of cancer have a moral right to this test at social expense? That would cover only 10% of cancers diagnosed in any given year.

We might say individuals known to be at elevated risk for cancer should have these tests paid for as a social expense. That would include smokers and sun worshippers at risk for lung cancer and melanoma. Would non-smokers and responsible sunscreen appliers have just cause for a grievance, i.e., paying for the irresponsible?

Would justice or efficiency require foregoing $160 billion in metastatic cancer care to pay for this preventive effort? What would a “just enough” balancing of therapeutic objectives look like? The basic economic and ethical problem is that we would be paying $160 billion annually that we knew would yield negative results more than 99% of the time. This is not obviously either a wise or just use of social resources. Moreover, this situation calls attention to the “statistical lives vs. identifiable lives” problem.

The “statistical lives” are the lives we would hope to save from metastatic cancer with the liquid biopsy test. These are nameless and faceless lives, unlike the identifiable lives that are the patients with metastatic cancer who want access to the hyper-expensive targeted therapies that might extend their lives a few months, maybe an extra year or so. In contrast, the hope is that each statistical life saved would result in extra decades of life for that individual.

A key ethical question is whether statistical lives and identifiable lives in this situation are of equal moral weight. Or are the identifiable lives with metastatic cancer more “morally worthy” of social resources because they are suffering and near dying? Or, as Raza contends, are we ethically obligated to shift resources from metastatic cancer patients (who have been effectively treated up to this point) to preventive efforts associated with liquid biopsies hoping to save more lives and life years? How do you, my currently healthy readers, think we ought to decide?

Related reading: If Whole Genome Sequencing is So Cheap and Quick, Why Shouldn’t Everyone Have It Done?

Antiseptic Rhetoric: Crisis Standards of Care

Bioethics in the News purple and teal icon

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”

If Whole Genome Sequencing is So Cheap and Quick, Why Shouldn’t Everyone Have It Done?

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

By Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

The headline in New York Times Magazine reads: “Scientists can now sequence an entire genome overnight.” This is amazing. It took ten years and $3 billion to do the first mapping of the human genome, all three billion base pairs. Today the entire genome of any individual can be mapped for less than $1000. Why is that important? There are preventative, diagnostic, therapeutic, reproductive, and public health reasons. The public health reasons are most evident with the speed with which all the variants of COVID-19 have been mapped.

Having one’s genome mapped can provide an individual with some foreknowledge of health risks to which they might be vulnerable (always keeping in mind environmental factors linked to inherent genetic risks, also keeping in mind the uncertainty and probabilities associated with the vast majority of health risks identified in this way). The risks of medical harm related to genetic ignorance can be reduced. A family of genes referred to as P450 determine whether we are normal, fast, or slow metabolizers of drugs. If we are fast metabolizers, a normal dose will be metabolized too quickly with diminished effectiveness. If we are slow metabolizers, a normal dose will accumulate to potentially life-threatening levels in some cases. Roughly 7% of 1200 FDA approved medications are affected by actionable germline inherited pharmacogenes. Even more importantly, 18% of outpatient U.S. prescriptions (more than four billion per year) are affected by actionable germline pharmacogenomics.

Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) can assist future possible parents to determine the best reproductive option if they know they represent specific genetic risks to future possible children, e.g., if each were a carrier for a mutated cystic fibrosis gene. In addition, WGS can be used to make accurate diagnoses of very rare disorders that would otherwise require harmful, invasive, diagnostic odysseys. This will be very important in the context of infants in the NICU or children in the PICU.

A technician who has long dark hair and is wearing safety glasses, a white coat, and purple gloves, loads DNA samples into a desktop genomic sequencing machine
Image description:  A technician loads DNA samples into a desktop genomic sequencing machine at the Cancer Genomics Research Laboratory, part of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG). Image source: Daniel Sone/National Cancer Institute/Unsplash.

I remind students that unlike normal medical tests that only yield information about the person who has the test, genetic tests tell us about genetic features of a range of close relatives. Hence, if a genetic test identifies a serious health vulnerability in me, that information can be used to alert other family members of that same vulnerability of which they might otherwise have been ignorant (and which might well be medically manageable before clinical symptoms emerge that might then suggest an irreversible disease process). The therapeutic potential of WGS is most evident today in the case of metastatic cancer. WGS can provide base-pair resolution of an entire tumor genome in a single run, thereby revealing the unique mutations and genomic alterations in the cancer tissue. This will often allow the identification of a targeted cancer therapy, such as imatinib, that targets the distinctive genetic features of a cancer, such as chronic myelogenous leukemia.

In the reproductive context WGS can be used as a non-invasive prenatal screening tool to offer a comprehensive assessment of the fetus. Likewise, WGS could be used at birth as a screening tool to offer a more comprehensive assessment of the infant than the current gene panel, which is only looking for fifty-six rare genetic disorders. This increases the opportunities for timely therapeutic interventions, when available.

Given all these potential therapeutic benefits, what would be the potential ethical challenges? Cost is an issue that raises health care justice problems. Though the sequencing itself costs less than $1000, the analysis, interpretation and counseling bring the cost to $3000 (though in the case of cancer treatment the cost will be $10,000). Few health insurers cover these costs. Should access to WGS then be publicly funded, as a matter of health care justice, perhaps as part of a basic benefit package guaranteed to all? If all 330 million Americans wanted WGS, the cost would be $990 billion. Would that be either a wise or just use of limited health care resources, given all sorts of other unmet health care needs in our society?

One of the main rationales for doing WGS is preventive, i.e., to identify significant health vulnerabilities whose risk of actualization can be reduced by behavioral change. However, the critical question is whether we can be very confident that most patients would commit to the required behavioral changes. Available medical evidence suggests pessimism in this regard, which would imply that WGS with this expectation represented a poor use of social resources. No one believes McDonald’s business plans are threatened by WGS.

If WGS is used to replace current neonatal screening practices, are the privacy rights of newborns put at risk, given later in life genetic vulnerabilities that would be revealed? Would these concerns be mitigated if only medically actionable information were revealed to parents, all other information being set aside until that child reached adulthood? However, what exactly is the scope of “medical actionability?” That child might be vulnerable to some serious genetic disorders much later in life. This would not be a concern for the child as a child. But that child might have older relatives for whom this information would have considerable potential relevance. What are the ethical issues associated with either revealing or failing to reveal that information to potentially “at-risk” relatives?

A very important feature of genetic information gleaned from neonatal WGS (and all WGS for that matter) is that the vast majority of that information will be either of unknown or highly uncertain significance. This will be especially true because of the thousands of mutations that would be part of anyone’s DNA. For parents of a newborn, such uncertainty could be distressing for years and years. However, there is also the uncertainty associated with the responsibilities of primary care physicians in this regard. Who is supposed to have responsibility for tracking changes in genetic knowledge regarding those genetic variations in an individual as medical research advances? And who would be responsible for conveying this new information to parents or adult children, and judging what should be told and when? This is a very complex medical information management problem, relative to which current physician complaints regarding the electronic medical record would fade into insignificance.

Let us assume that WGS is going to be done more thoughtfully and more parsimoniously, such as a diagnostic or therapeutic context where such information would be most useful. What will still happen is the discovery of all sorts of incidental genetic information, sometimes with frightening potential consequences. Imagine this bit of medical dialogue: “Mr. Smith, we were looking for the genetic roots of your heart disease (which we found), but we also discovered your genetic vulnerability to an early-onset form of dementia.” Many patients would not want to know this. How is a physician supposed to know what a patient does or does not want to know in this regard?

Finally, WGS could generate new problems of health care justice. Imagine that the incidental finding in the prior paragraph was a 10% lifetime risk of some serious but treatable cancer. I personally would not be especially distressed by such a finding. However, other individuals might be especially anxious and demand all manner of expensive diagnostic tests on a semi-annual basis to rule out any indications of disease initiation. Would that individual have a just claim to such resources at social expense?

To return to the title of this essay, perhaps the fact that WGS is quick, easy to do, and relatively inexpensive is insufficient reason to justify the promiscuous promulgation at social expense of this technology. Perhaps more thoughtful social and professional deliberation regarding the issues identified in this essay would yield less ethically fraught uses of WGS. Then again there could be the 2030 version of the electronic medical record with room for terabytes of genetic information and thousands of new tabs and subtabs!

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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 author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, May 6, 2021. 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. Fleck: Religious Coercion of Physicians: Whose Conscience Is It Anyway? Health Care and Social Justice: Just Take Two Aspirin for Your Tumor If You Cannot Afford Your Cancer Care; Medicare For All: This Is Going to HurtGreed Is God: The Divine Right to Avaricious Drug PricingGene Editing: God’s Will or God’s Won’t

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