Making a Moral Case for Regulation

Valerie Braithwaite’s chapter in the ANU’s Press’s new Regulatory Theory: Foundations and Applications provides a general introduction to looking at regulation through a social lens.  If regulation is so great, she asks, why do so many people approach it with fear and loathing?

I won’t rehearse her argument here, but instead skip to some key points about how we who appreciate the social good provided by regulation can best make that case. One of ten suggestions she concludes with was particularly resonant to me: “Engage with dissent on moral grounds. Is it right morally to steer the flow of events in the way proposed?”

As my colleagues and I have argued, public health (and progressive policy advoacy generally) needs richer moral arguments.  By “richer moral arguments,” we mean to invoke the work of Jonathan Haidt on human moral intuitions. Haidt’s work in evolutionary moral psychology has extended the “two systems” model of the brain that underlies behavioral economics to the realm of moral thinking. As with risks and other decisions under uncertainty, “reasoning” over morals starts with instant, unconscious intuitions that our reasoning mind undertakes to defend.  Liberals (and policy-wonks) tend to respond to and invoke fairness and the protection of the vulnerable, which are fine moral intuitions but hardly a complete set. Sanctity, loyalty, and liberty are also powerful moral values.  We miss a chance to win over conservatives and libertarians when we ignore them.

Braithwaite’s chapter is exactly right that we cannot justify regulations simply by their favorable cost-benefit ratios or the number of lives they save.  We also have to talk about regulation as an expression of solidarity, a commitment of compliance morally required as a consequence of being part of our society.  Although we may rationally place a value on life in deciding to regulate, we can nonetheless argue without blushing that every life is sacred. And, as she suggests elsewhere in the chapter, we can show an appreciation of the value of liberty by deploying regulation carefully and only where it is needed for an important purpose.

“There are millions of people who are living below subsistence”: Black Panther Party Founder Bobby Seale as Public Health Activist

By Wendy S. Salkin

Picture it: Tuesday, February 14, 2017. It is four o’clock and the Tsai Auditorium of the Center for Government and International Studies is packed to the gills, abuzz with energy. Harvard faculty, students, staff, and community members fill every seat, line the steps, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the back. They are turning would-be attendees away at the door. The occasion for such excitement is this: The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research here at Harvard hosted the event, “Bobby Seale in Conversation with Jim Sidanius.”

Jim Sidanius is the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in memory of William James and of African and African American Studies. His work spans broadly across both decades and areas of inquiry. He and his co-author Felicia Pratto are famously responsible for formulating social dominance theory, “a general model of the development and maintenance of group-based social hierarchy and social oppression.” He has also pioneered work in other areas of political psychology, including such research areas as “political ideology and cognitive functioning, the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.”

And Bobby Seale, as you may know, co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). I had never before seen Bobby Seale speak and did not know what to expect. And, ultimately, I am pleased not to have watched any of his interviews in advance, as I was able to have the experience with fresh eyes. (It’s worth noting that many of his interviews and speeches are easily accessible on YouTube. It’s worth watching them, including his 2015 New York Times interview with R&B artist D’Angelo.) His energy and enthusiasm captivates his audience, as when, during his talk last week, he recited from the Declaration of Independence, and while so doing impersonated both John Wayne and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He recited this passage:

“[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursu[ed] invariably…evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, [then it is the] right [of the people]…to [alter and change that] Government, and [] provide new Guards for their future security.”

Continue reading

Global Genes, Local Concerns: A Symposium on Legal, Ethical and Scientific Challenges in International Biobanking

I am happy to announce our “Global Genes, Local Concerns Symposium on Legal, Ethical and Scientific Challenges in International Biobanking” to be held at the University of Copenhagen (DK) on 16 March 2017, 08:00-18:30. Among the many prominent experts speaking at this conference  we find the PFC’s very own Glenn Cohen and several speakers with a PFC “history” or close PFC links, such as Bartha Knoppers, Tim Caulfield, Nicholson Price and Jeff Skopek.

A detailed program and further information is available here and here.

This Symposium marks the final phase of the Global Genes-Local Concerns project. In accordance with the goals of this large cross-faculty project, the Symposium deals with legal, ethical and scientific challenges in cross-national biobanking and translational exploitation. Leading international experts and invited speakers will discuss how national biobanks contribute to translational research, what opportunities and challenges regulations present for translational use of biobanks, how inter-biobank coordination and collaboration occurs on various levels, and how academic and industrial exploitation, ownership and IPR issues could be addressed and facilitated. Special emphasis will be laid on challenges and opportunities in addressing regulatory barriers to biobank research and the translation of research results, while at the same time securing ethical legitimacy and societal interests.

These issues will be dealt with in 4 main sessions covering (1) BIG DATA AND MODES OF COLLABORATION; (2) PATIENT INVOLVEMENT; (3) TRANSLATIONAL MEDICINE & TECH TRANSFER, as well as (4) GUIDELINES & GOOD GOVERNANCE.

Speakers:

  • Bartha Knoppers, Mc Gill University (Canada)
  • Glenn Cohen, Harvard University (US)
  • Timo Minssen, University of Copenhagen (DK)
  • Tim Caulfield, University of Alberta (Can)
  • Michael Madison, University of Pittsburgh (US)
  • Jeff Skopek, University of Cambridge (UK)
  • Brian Clark, Director, Human Biosample Governance, Novo Nordisk A/S (DK)
  • Jane Kaye, University of Oxford (UK)
  • Anne Cambon-Thomsen, INSERM, Toulouse / CNRS Director (Fr)
  • Klaus Høyer, University of Copenhagen (DK)
  • Aaro M. Tupasela, University of Copenhagen (DK)
  • M. B. Rasmussen, University of Copenhagen (DK)
  • Åsa Hellstadius, Stockholm University (Sweden)
  • Peter Yu, A&M Texas University (US)
  • Esther van Zimmeren, University of Antwerp/Leuven (Belgium)
  • Nicholson Price, University of Michigan Law School (US)
  • Karine Sargsyan,  BBMRI/Head of Biobanking-Graz (Austria)
  • Eva Ortega-Paino,  BBMRI, Lund University (Sweden)
  • Nana Kongsholm, University of Copenhagen (DK)
  • Klemens Kappel, University of Copenhagen (DK)
  • Helen Yu, University of Copenhagen (DK).

For participation in the event please use this registration form no later than Friday, 10 March 2017, 12:00 at the latest.

We are looking very much forward to welcoming you in wonderful Copenhagen on 16 March 2017.

Best wishes/

Timo Minssen

Watching Out for the Rights of the Uninsured

Special Guest Post by Professor Howell E. Jackson, Harvard Law School

As Republicans strive to unwind the Affordable Care Act (ACA), public commentary is quite naturally focusing on the number of Americans who might lose health insurance coverage. The Congressional Budget Office last month estimated that eleven million individuals could drop off of insurance rolls immediately, with millions and millions more to lose coverage within the next few years.  These numbers are indeed troubling, but the fate of the uninsured deserves similar attention.

For those critical of the ACA, uninsured individuals are sometimes characterized as victims of government overreach: penalized with a tax assessment for not complying with the individual mandate, and denied access to the kinds of lower-cost insurance policies that a less regulated insurance market might provide.  And there is some truth to this critique:  Mandatory coverage terms under the ACA do drive up premiums, and of the estimated 27 million Americans now without health insurance coverage, some eight million are paying ACA penalties, totaling on the order of $8 billion a year.  But under the ACA, the uninsured are getting something for those penalties.  In fact, they are getting quite a lot.

As policy analysts often note, the ACA prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher premiums based on pre-existing conditions.  This protection is most often discussed in the context of individuals seeking to obtain insurance coverage in the first instance or after losing employer-provided coverage.  A less heralded, but equally important feature of this aspect of the ACA is that it allows healthy Americans the freedom to forgo insurance in the first instance and then purchase reasonably priced coverage when the need arises.  The policies available to uninsured individuals have the full protections of the ACA, including limits on out-of-pocket expenses, as well as prohibitions on annual or lifetime coverage limits and mandated terms of coverage.  In addition, premiums are constrained and, for many individuals and families, premium assistance and cost sharing support are available.   While many despair that a large and possibly growing share of Americans lack insurance coverage, at least the ACA ensures that the uninsured have the right to buy a good health insurance policy at a reasonable price when the need arises. Continue reading

2/22: Michael Sandel & author Yuval Harari discuss new book Homo Deus

Register for this event

Harvard Book Store and welcomes the bestselling author of Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari for a discussion of his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari will be joined in conversation by Harvard’s Michael Sandel, author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

This event is open to the public, but tickets are required. Tickets are available online only via the Harvard Book Store. Ticket price of $34.75 includes a copy of the book. Purchase tickets now! Continue reading

Rebecca Dresser on ‘The Week in Health Law’ Podcast

By Nicolas Terry and Frank Pasquale

Subscribe to TWIHL here!

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This week features Professor Rebecca Dresser of Washington University. She is the author of Silent Partners: Human Subjects and Research Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016) and When Science Offers Salvation: Patient Advocacy and Research Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2001), along with many other insightful articles on bioethics and law. Our discussion focused on Silent Partners, including Rebecca’s work’s relevance to current debates on research ethics and informed consent.

Rebecca is a past member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Board. She is a prolific speaker and panelist at national and international symposia, conferences, and workshops on such topics as bioethics and cancer; advance treatment directives; stem cell research; biomedical research policy; and human cloning.

The Week in Health Law Podcast from Frank Pasquale and Nicolas Terry is a commuting-length discussion about some of the more thorny issues in Health Law & Policy. Subscribe at iTunes, listen at Stitcher Radio, Tunein and Podbean, or search for The Week in Health Law in your favorite podcast app. Show notes and more are at TWIHL.com. If you have comments, an idea for a show or a topic to discuss you can find us on twitter @nicolasterry @FrankPasquale @WeekInHealthLaw

Defeating Death (And Taxes)

“It is one of the most powerful tools our species has created. It helps doctors fight disease. It can predict global weather patterns. It improves education for children everywhere. And now, we unleash it…on your taxes.”

Super Bowl 2017 was an absolute cracker. My passport is not American and my accent is not Bostonian, but somewhere amidst the drama and the crowd and the cheesy nachos, I was drawn in and hooked. I roared and gasped and choked on cheap beer all the way to that nail-biting finish. Go Pats.

But, as it was my very first Super Bowl, I was told to keep an eye on the ads. Sure enough, they were hilarious, inspiring, maddening and perplexing by turn. One of them, however, hit me harder than Keanu Neal.

This ad, from H&R Block, announced that they will be using IBM’s Watson to deliver their services. Watson is, perhaps, the most impressive artificial intelligence that our species has yet produced. H&R Block is a consumer tax services provider.

Continue reading

A New Day For Oversight Of Human Subjects Research

This new post by Holly F. Lynch appears on the Health Affairs Blog in a series stemming from the Fifth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Monday, January 23, 2017.

On January 19, 2017—President Obama’s last day in office—the Federal Register published a Final Rule to amend the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, the set of regulations applicable to most human subjects research conducted or supported with federal funds, and more typically referred to as the “Common Rule.” This rule change had been a long time coming, with an Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) published in July 2011 and a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) published in September 2015. The seriousness of its impact on the research community, patients, and the public is evidenced by the more than 3,300 public comments submitted during the rulemaking process. So what changed?

First, it is important to understand where things stood. The Common Rule was initially adopted in 1991, with each relevant agency codifying the same set of regulations (the Department of Health and Human Service’s codification is found at 45 C.F.R. Part 46). The primary functions of the Common Rule are to require that research with human subjects be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and that subjects provide informed consent to research participation, with some important exceptions on each front. (FDA has similar, but not identical requirements, for clinical investigations, which are now likely to be harmonized with the new Common Rule.) […]

Continue reading here.

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Biosimilars

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Bio
similars

February 7, 2017 12:00 PM

Description

Many of today’s important medications are biological products made from living organisms, manufactured through biotechnology, derived from natural sources, or produced synthetically. Biosimilars are a type of biological product approved by FDA on the basis of being highly similar to an already approved biological reference product, like a generic drug.

This panel of experts will discuss the current state of biosimilars in the healthcare ecosystem and what comes next from a technical and legal perspective. Topics include how the next generation of biosimilars can improve patient access to standard-of-care therapies, the concept of “biobetters,” economic and intellectual property considerations, and policy approaches to support existing and future biosimilars.

Panelists

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

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

REGISTER NOW (2/10)! Returning Results to Research Participants: A Health Policy and Bioethics Consortium

health-policy-and-bioethics-consortium-visixREGISTER NOW! Returning Results to Research Participants: A Health Policy and Bioethics Consortium

February 10, 2017 12:30 – 2:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East C (2036)
Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA

Register Now!

Clinical investigators, public health advocates, and IRBs have been struggling to develop appropriate policies on how to return results to patients involved in research studies. These results may come in a variety of forms, ranging from aggregated study results to individual results to incidental findings. Experts disagree over the optimal timing, how researchers should consider the burden that these results can place on patients, and whether there are circumstances in which certain findings should be withheld. Is clinical utility the appropriate standard, or does mere curiosity suffice to trigger disclosure obligations? How certain must the results be, and what if there is reason to believe that the results will be difficult for participants to understand – or cause them harm?  Two experts in the field of research law and ethics will join us to engage these and other questions, and help conceive a way to move forward in the best interests of patients and the medical research enterprise. Continue reading

CMS Publishes Final Rule Revising and Expanding Conditions for HHA Participation in Medicare and Medicaid

By Wendy S. Salkin

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) finalized a rule concerning home health agencies on January 9th, “Medicare and Medicaid Program: Conditions of Participation for Home Health Agencies.” The rule has been a long time coming, since the proposed rules were set forth on October 9, 2014. This is the first time that CMS has successfully updated the home health agency (HHA) conditions of participation (CoPs) since 1989.

The aim of the final rule, according to CMS, is to “improve the quality of health care services for Medicare and Medicaid patients and strengthen patients’ rights.” The final rule

revises the conditions of participation (CoPs) that home health agencies (HHAs) must meet in order to participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. The requirements focus on the care delivered to patients by HHAs, reflect an interdisciplinary view of patient care, allow HHAs greater flexibility in meeting quality care standards, and eliminate unnecessary procedural requirements.

According to CMS,

[t]hese changes are an integral part of [the Agency’s] overall effort to achieve broad-based, measurable improvements in the quality of care furnished through the Medicare and Medicaid programs, while at the same time eliminating unnecessary procedural burdens on providers.

As is likely well known to readers, the use of home health services in the United States is widespread. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as of 2014, there were 12,400 home health agencies in the United States and, during 2013, 4.9 million patients in the United States received and ended care from home healthcare workers. These numbers have since risen, and today in the United States there are nearly 12,600 Medicare and Medicaid-participating home health agencies and more than 5 million patients. Home health care serves a wide range of purposes. The Medicare website touts it as “usually less expensive, more convenient, and just as effective as care you get in a hospital or skilled nursing facility (SNF).” In addition to serving the aims of treating illness or injury, according to Medicare home health care “helps [patients] get better, regain [their] independence, and become as self-sufficient as possible.” Some examples of what home health care providers do with and for patients, upon doctor’s orders, include: wound care, patient and caregiver education, intravenous or nutrition therapy, injections, monitoring patient health condition, monitoring patient drug and treatment use, teaching patients how to care for themselves, and coordinating care between the patient, their doctor, and any other caregivers. Continue reading

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Biosimilars

Looking Forward: The Next Generation of Bio
similars

February 7, 2017 12:00 PM

Description

Many of today’s important medications are biological products made from living organisms, manufactured through biotechnology, derived from natural sources, or produced synthetically. Biosimilars are a type of biological product approved by FDA on the basis of being highly similar to an already approved biological reference product, like a generic drug.

This panel of experts will discuss the current state of biosimilars in the healthcare ecosystem and what comes next from a technical and legal perspective. Topics include how the next generation of biosimilars can improve patient access to standard-of-care therapies, the concept of “biobetters,” economic and intellectual property considerations, and policy approaches to support existing and future biosimilars.

Panelists

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

What is the Meaning of Trump’s Day 1 Executive Order on the ACA?

Guest Post by Erin C. Fuse Brown

On the day of his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order instructing the executive branch agencies to exercise their discretion and authority to  “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of” fees, taxes, or penalties under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The order does not specify which “fiscal burdens” it targets, but the individual mandate, the employer mandate, and the various industry and payroll taxes imposed by the law immediately jump to mind. These are all written into the law, and the President cannot unilaterally set them aside. The executive order says it is following the law, including the Administrative Procedure Act, which is good because it means the President is not instructing anyone to flout the law. Even existing ACA rules cannot be undone overnight and can only be changed or repealed through a lengthy notice-and-comment rulemaking process.

There is such a thing as “enforcement discretion,” which some suggest means that the individual mandate won’t be enforced anymore. I’m not so sure. If the President instructed the IRS to stop collecting taxes from billionaires under its enforcement discretion, that wouldn’t be legal. Continue reading

Can the Right to Stop Eating and Drinking be Exercised via a Surrogate Acting Pursuant to an Advance Instruction?

by Norman L. Cantor

The right of a grievously stricken, competent patient to hasten death by ceasing eating and drinking is increasingly recognized. In the typical scenario, a person afflicted with a serious degenerative disease reaches a point where the immediate or prospective ordeal has become personally intolerable.  The stricken person decides to shorten the ordeal by stopping eating and drinking, precipitating death by dehydration within 14 days.  The dying process is not too arduous so long as there is a modicum of palliative care available – emotional support, lip and mouth care, and provision of a sedative if patient agitation or disorientation ensues.

A further question is whether a person can dictate a similar fatal course for his or her post-competence self by advance instruction to an agent.  The instruction would be that — once a pre-defined point of dementia has been reached — either no food or drink should be offered to the incompetent patient or no manual assistance should be provided where the patient is not self-feeding.  This post-competence SED tactic appeals to persons who view the prospective demented status as intolerably demeaning and wish to hasten their demise upon reaching that state. The legal claim would be that if a competent patient has a right to SED, the right ought to subsist post-competence when exercised by clear advance instruction.  According to this claim, just as an advance instruction to reject a respirator would be upheld as an exercise of prospective autonomy, so an instruction for cessation of nutrition should be respected.

     A person who undertakes responsibility for a demented person normally has a fiduciary duty to promote the well-being, comfort, and dignity of the ward.  A guardian who forgoes available care measures such as shelter, warmth, hygiene, and food is chargeable with unlawful neglect.  Provision of food and assistance in eating are normally part of that fiduciary obligation.  A legal exemption might apply, though, if the guardian – in discontinuing hand feeding pursuant to an advance instruction — is simply respecting the right of the ward to exercise prospective autonomy. The question becomes: Is the acknowledged right to SED exercisable by means of an advance instruction?  Continue reading

MONDAY (1/23)! PFC’s 5th Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Fifth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2016 and what to watch out for in 2017. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law. Continue reading

The ACA’s Real Effect: Moving the Goalposts

By Christopher Robertson

“I believe and I look forward to working with you to make certain that every single American has access to the highest-quality care and coverage that is possible. … [W]e believe it’s appropriate to put in place a system that gives every person the financial feasibility to be able to purchase the coverage that they want for themselves and for their family.”

That quote is not from Barack Obama.  It’s from Trump HHS nominee Tom Price, and it shows just how successfully the ACA has shifted the American political landscape towards universal coverage. As I argued earlier this month in STAT, with Glenn Cohen and Holly Fernandez Lynch, the debate is now about how to get universal health insurance coverage, rather than whether to do so.

Republicans will of course favor market-oriented approaches, and they will find difficulty conceiving a plan that is farther to the right than the ACA itself while actually achieving the goals that Price promises.  But for now, even if the ACA is soon repealed, it has succeeded in moving the goalposts for health policy.

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

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

Congressional Ignorance and the OTA

“Who is making all these decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in? Just some members of Congress? But there’s no more than a handful of them with any background in science at all! … This combustible mixture of ignorance and power is… going to blow up in our faces”.

– Carl Sagan, in interview with Charlie Rose

ota_sealThe Office of Technology Assessment (the “OTA”) was founded in 1972. It was charged by Congress with providing “competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social and political effects” of new technologies. It made predictions and forecasts about what new developments were likely and distilled the entire assessment into impartial advice and actionable steps for Congress. It was a key source for the government’s development of public policy. It was also a pioneer in citizen engagement: it was among the first of the government agencies to publish its papers online.

During its existence, it published over 750 reports on everything from acid rain to medical waste management to bioterrorism. Despite its successes, it was defunded in 1995.  This move has been compared to “Congress giving itself a lobotomy” (Chris Mooney – Republican War on Science). Chris Mooney argues that defunding the OTA was not so much a budgetary decision as a political move designed to allow the reigning party to recruit partisan scientists who would “scientifically validate” their own policy goals. Readers can examine the reports of the various Presidents’ Councils on Bioethics and draw their own conclusions. Continue reading

Preventing a post-antibiotic world

Nick Bagley and I have an op-ed in today’s New York Times calling for serious economic incentives for antibiotics, delinking revenues from sales volumes with a $4 billion prize system.

From the piece:

On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a disturbing report about the death of an elderly woman in Washoe County, Nev. What killed her wasn’t heart disease, cancer or pneumonia. What killed her were bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic doctors could throw at them.

This anonymous woman is only the latest casualty in a war against antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a war that we are losing. Although most bacteria die when they encounter an antibiotic, a few hardy bugs survive. Through repeated exposure, those tough bacteria proliferate, spreading resistance genes through the bacterial population. That’s the curse of antibiotics: The more they’re used, the worse they get, especially when they’re used carelessly. […]

Read more here.