About Brad Segal

Brad Segal (@bradsegal) is a fourth year medical student at Harvard Medical School where he is a dual-degree MD/master of bioethics candidate. He is currently a Student Fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center.

Undocumented Organ Transplants

By Brad Segal

Manuel—not his real name—was admitted to the hospital with decompensated heart failure. As a child he had scarlet fever which, left untreated, had caused the valves of his heart to calcify and stiffen. Over time, pumping against increased resistance, his heart’s contractions began to weaken until finally, they lost all synchrony and the normal function of his heart spiraled out of control. At this stage, his fate was tied to whether or not he would receive a new heart in time.

He was in his 30’s and had no other illnesses. From a medical perspective, Manuel was the ideal candidate for a cardiac transplant. But a decade ago Manuel crossed the United States border in pursuit of a better life. As an undocumented immigrant, he was ineligible for the insurance coverage necessary to pay for a heart transplant. After being thoroughly evaluated by the hospital’s transplant center, given his modest financial resources and inability to obtain new insurance coverage, Manuel was not placed on the waiting list for a new heart.

The average heart transplant costs about a million dollars to perform. Subsequent follow-up care adds another $30,000 annually. Health insurance will usually cover most, if not all, of these costs. But uninsured patients are kept off transplant lists on the grounds that the inability to pay for care allegedly jeopardizes an organ’s long-term success. Continue reading

Chimeras with benefits? Transplants from bioengineered human/pig donors

By Brad Segal

In January of this year, Cell published a study modestly titled, Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells. It reports success bioengineering a mostly-pig partly-human embryo. One day before, Nature published a report that scientists had grown (for lack of a better word) a functioning genetically-mouse pancreas within the body of a genetically-modified rat. The latest study raises the likelihood that before long, it will also be scientifically possible to grow human organs within bioengineered pigs.

The implications for transplantation are tremendous. But hold the applause for now. Imagine a chimera with a brain made up of human neurons which expressed human genes. Would organ procurement without consent be okay? That troubling possibility raises  questions about whether manufacturing chimeras with human-like properties for organs is even appropriate in the first place. Here’s what University of Montreal bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky told the Washington Post:

“I think the point of these papers is sort of a proof of principle, showing that what researchers intend to achieve with human-non-human chimeras might be possible … The more you can show that it stands to produce something that will actually save lives … the more we can demonstrate that the benefit is real, tangible and probable — overall it shifts the scale of risk-benefit assessment, potentially in favor of pursuing research and away from those concerns that are more philosophical and conceptual.”

I respectfully disagree. Saving more lives, of course, is good. Basic science is also valuable – even more so if it might translate to the bedside. This line of research, though, is positioned to upend our entire system of transplantation, and so its implications go beyond organ supply. In this post I will argue that to assess this technology’s implications for organ procurement in particular, there is good reason to focus on harms, not benefits. Continue reading

Well-rested versus well-trained doctors: New twist in debate over resident duty hours (Part II)

By Brad Segal

When people fall acutely ill, they deserve a non-sleep deprived doctor—but they also deserve an adequately-trained doctor. There are only so many hours to the day, and so in medical education a resident’s need for self-care must be balanced against the need for maximum clinical exposure. Since 2003, when restrictions to resident duty hours were first enacted, there has been disagreement about how to best navigate the tension. Recently, the debate resurfaced when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) proposed a change to the policy governing resident duty hour limits. Perhaps the most surprising part of the announcement was that their proposal increased the time limit that interns (first year residents) can care for patients without sleep. The policy ACGME enacted in 2011 had capped interns at 16 hours on-call, and the proposal increases the limit to 28 hours.

In my prior post I raised arguments for and against the proposed changes to duty hour limits. Here I will unpack the conclusions and limitations of the best empirical evidence available to ACGME: the Flexibility in Duty Hour Requirements for Surgical Trainees (FIRST) Trial. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 2016, the FIRST Trial randomized 117 surgical residency programs nationwide to have either “standard” duty hour policies, which included the current 16-hour cap on interns, or “flexible” policies, which reflect the recent ACGME proposal. Data were collected from July 2014 to June 2105. The sister-study involving medical residencies nationwide has regrettably not yet published.

The FIRST Trial warrant close attention because, like a Rorschach test, different people see different things in the data. For instance, take the finding that neither group caused significantly more or less harm to patients, though shorter duty hours were associated with more handoffs of patient responsibility. Taken at face value, these results neither clearly bolster nor contradict the proposed duty hour changes; yet they are used to both support and undermine the tentative changes to ACGME policy. The study’s first author told NPR that, “We believe the trial results say it’s safe to provide some flexibility in duty hours.” On the other hand, an editorial published in NEJM alongside the study argues that, “The FIRST Trial effectively debunks concerns that patients will suffer as a result of increased handoffs and breaks in the continuity of care.” Is there a right conclusion to draw from the study? Continue reading

New twist in debate over resident duty hours (Part I)

By Brad Segal

Amidst a roller-coaster presidential campaign, on November 4th the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) presented a plan to change resident duty hour limits. That the specifics have largely flown under the radar is perhaps unsurprising given the current news cycle. But the understated revision to, “Resident Duty Hours in The Learning and Working Environment” is the latest twist in a relatively contentious issue within medical education (see 2016 NEJM op-ed vs. responses). The proposal is currently undergoing requisite comment period until December 19. This week I’ll briefly lay out the history of duty hours to help explain the significance of ACGME’s proposal, and I will then go through general empirical arguments for and against such a change. My next post will examine how well these argument hold in light of the most recent data available.

Today the physicians’ training experience immediately following medical school is no longer the whir of dangerous sleep deprivation lampooned in the House of God. Amid mounting evidence that resident sleep deprivation caused medical errors, and under threat of federal legislation, in 2003 the ACGME first introduced national guidelines restricting resident work hours to 80 hours per week (averaged over 4 weeks), and capped residents to 30 hours of continuous in-house call. Then in 2009 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a 427-page report reviewing scientific evidence on resident work hours, sleep deprivation, and fatigue-related errors. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that sleep deprivation significantly impairs most aspects of cognition. Hence the IOM ultimately recommended that residents not exceed 16 hours of continuous work before dedicated rest.

The ACGME subsequently modified duty hour guidelines in 2011 and limited first-year residents (‘interns’) to working 16-hour stretches. The reason ACGME’s most recent proposal is curious, though, is that it back-tracks on the 2011 intern duty-hour limits, raising their in-house cap to 28 hours. In response to this proposal a national advocacy group, Public Citizen, claimed it, “would expose residents, their patients and the general public to the risk of serious injury and death.” Continue reading

The Competing Identities of Neuroethics

By Brad Segal

This past week week I attended the International Neuroethics Society’s (INS) annual conference in San Diego, California. Neuroethics is multidisciplinary field that grapples with the implications of neuroscience for—and from—medicine, law, philosophy, and the social sciences. One of the many excellent panels brought together scholars from each of these four disciplines to discuss the diverse approaches to the field. The panel featured; Paul Appelbaum, a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University; Tom Buller, Chair of philosophy at Illinois State University; Jennifer Chandler, Professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and; Ilina Singh, Professor of Neuroscience & Society at the University of Oxford.

The panel started by considering the importance of the “competing identities” present in the field of neuroethics. As moderator Eric Racine explained, right from the start, even the term ‘neuroethics’ suggests a tension. Consider the variety of research methodologies employed in the field. For instance, a scholar trained in philosophy might approach neuroscience from a conceptual and purely analytical basis, and yet a social scientist might research the same question by collecting empirical interview data. The interplay between empirical and theoretical work was a theme that defined the discussion.

A psychiatrist by training, Dr. Applebaum spoke on the medical approach to the field. He argued that a focus on ethical issues in clinical psychiatry and neurology should be viewed as a part (but only a part) of neuroethics. Furthermore, medicine’s empirical approach to neuroethics is one (but not the only) way to advance thinking on neuroethical issues. Continue reading

Organs and Overdoses (Part II): ‘Higher risk’ donors

By Brad Segal

In my last post I characterized how overdoses from the surging opioid epidemic have become the fastest-growing cause of mortality among organ donors. In this update, I raise one potential consequence with ethical and policy implications: so-called donor-derived infections. To be clear, I focus primarily on organ recipients as deaths from drug overdose, and drug addiction more broadly, should be prevented regardless of any implications for transplantation. With this in mind, consider how the population of injection drug users shoulders a heavy burden of HIV, hepatitis B (HBV) and hepatitis C (HCV) (Table 1). First I will focus on screening guidelines, and then will move on to transplantation of organs known to carry an infection. table-1

Screening guidelines can help reduce the incidence of donor-derived infections, but the lab tests recommended in any policy must balance two potential concerns. First, lab tests have a rate of false negative results. Transplants of these organs will accidentally increase donor-derived infections. The policy question, then, is whether or not transplanting organs donated by individuals with higher risk of recent disease exposure will expose an unacceptable proportion of recipients to infection. This unintentional harm could undermine a duty of non-maleficence to organ recipients. Further complicating a potential screening policy is that the basic lab tests for HIV, HBV, and HCV detect the presence of human antibodies, which work well among a low-risk population, but antibodies might not appear in the blood until weeks after infection (Table 2).Recent infections are better detected by nucleic acid amplification (NAT) testing.To mitigate risk of infection,then, transplant screening policies should require a heightened level of surveillance among donors with a history of illicit drug use. Continue reading

Organs and Overdoses: The Numbers (Part I)

By Brad Segal

The surging opioid epidemic is a threat to the nation’s public health. This year the CDC reported that mortality from drug overdose reached an all-time high, with the annual death toll more than doubling since 2000. Yet in the backdrop of this epidemic, the country also faces ongoing shortages of a different sort–too few organs for transplantation. Every day, approximately 22 people die while waiting for an organ to become available. To some it is not a surprise–or at least not inconceivable–that the fastest-growing source of organ donors is being fueled by the national spike in drug overdoses. This first post will help delineate the scope and scale of the situation. My follow-up will discuss the ethical considerations and ramifications for public policy.

To start: the numbers. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) makes domestic transplant data publicly available online, which currently extends from 1994 to September 30th, 2016. Two decades ago, 29 organ donors died from a drug overdose.* In just the first nine months of this year, that number has climbed to 888 donors. Even with a quarter of the calendar year left to be counted, 2016 has already surpassed previous record set in 2015 (Figure 1).


Figure 1

One might question whether this trend is an illusion–perhaps a rise in the incidence of donors who had overdosed reflects an increasing number of transplants. But the data suggest the opposite. Also plotted in Figure 1, the percentage of total organ donors who died from overdose (maroon diamonds, right-sided Y axis) has not remained constant–instead, the percentage has steadily increased. Two decades ago, overdose caused the deaths of 0.6% of all organ donors; this year, it is the cause of death among 12.0% of organ donors nationwide. The rising percentage means that not only are more victims of drug overdose donating organs, but that the pool of organ donors is increasingly composed of such individuals. Continue reading

‘Concussion’ distorts the scope of traumatic brain injury

By Brad Segal 

I just watched the movie Concussion (2015) as an assignment for one of my bioethics courses. The movie is about a physician, Dr. Bennet Omalu, as he unravels the association between playing in NFL and an acquired neurodegenerative disease, a condition he calls, “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE). At one point Dr. Omalu tries to convince a prominent researcher that, despite suffering head traumas similar to those of football players, animals like the woodpecker have the means of avoiding CTE;

“The woodpecker’s tongue comes out the back of the mouth through the nostril and goes around the top of its head. Basically, it’s one big safety belt for the brain.” (source)

The tongue shoots out through the nostril? As a medical student, I found this trivial aside absolutely fascinating. But when I tried to learn more I quickly realized–to my dismay–that most experts would balk at this characterization. Woodpeckers don’t develop CTE for a variety of reasons, including; (1) smaller mass means less force from deceleration; (2) no head rotation during each peck as to decrease angular forces, and; (3) their skulls have a physiologic protective cushion. I won’t delve further into the weeds about where exactly the movie’s assertions depart from reality, but to put it generously, this crucial argument totally misrepresents the science.

The problem with all of this is that it’s tempting to watch Concussion and feel better informed about the controversies surrounding professional football and CTE. To be honest, I was mesmerized watching familiar events brought to life on screen, and it all seemed credible as it used the actual names of people involved. Movie reviews by Rolling Stone even suggest that it should be mandatory for football fans, and The New York Times remarks on how it, “sells a complex issue.” Sure, everyone knows Concussion is “for entertainment purposes only,” but can’t stories that are true also be entertaining? However, the seemingly-trivial inaccuracy about woodpeckers was a potent reminder that this film is not a documentary. Concussion should be viewed as it is–a major Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin.

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Confidentiality or Public Disclosure: Trump’s Gastroenterologist and an Ethical Dilemma

By Brad Segal

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” proclaimed Dr. Harold Bornstein. The gastroenterologist’s letter, released on the candidate’s website nine months ago, stumbles from the outset with a typo (“To Whom My Concern,”), then steamrolls over the most basic descriptions of health (medical school teaches us that vital signs are, well, vital), omits information pertinent to the public discourse (why does it fail to mention the medical reason exempting Trump from the Vietnam draft?), and strangely emphases non-medicalized traits (“His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary”). Most experts agree that this medical record, if we can even call it that, is at best hyperbole. It draws grandiose conclusions without medical justification. Even Dr. Bornstein conceded, “In the rush, I think some of those words didn’t come out exactly the way they were meant.”

Just this morning the Trump campaign released a second letter from Dr. Bornstein. But this time the doctor rather humbly concludes, “In summary, Mr. Trump is in excellent physical health.”  These letters from Dr. Bornstein’s letter demonstrate a modern-day moral dilemma in providing care for a party nominee. At conflict is the physician’s professional duty to respect patient confidentiality, and his or her obligations to care for society more broadly.

First, patient-doctor confidentiality is not merely a byproduct of the law—it is a moral obligation grounded in the core tenants of the medical profession. To put it simply, if a patient comes to expect that his doctor will tell the entire community about the patient’s most embarrassing bodily defects, the patient may understandably deny his worsening symptoms of poor health at the next office visit. In the long run, erosion of trust in the medical system could endanger the public’s health–everyone is thus better off when doctors uniformly respect patient privacy. It is important to point out, however, that an informed and competent person can voluntarily waive one’s right to patient-doctor confidentiality, such as when a patient gives a physician the permission to provide updates to family members. Or when then-candidate John McCain instructed his physicians all 1,100 pages in his medical records.

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