Blinding as a Solution to Bias

Blinding Bias

We’re pleased to announce that a new book by Petrie-Flom Center affiliates Christopher Robertson and Aaron Kesselheim will be available this week.  The edited volume — Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law — grew from a 2013 conference at Harvard co-sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center.  From the fascinating history of blinding (starting in Ben Franklin’s living room to test the healing powers of Mesmerism) to the sham surgeries being used today, and the future novel uses of blinding in the courts, the book moves the debate forward.  What are the advantages and limitations of blinding compared to other solutions for biases? How can we quantify the biases in unblinded research? Can we develop new ways to blind decision-makers?  What are the ethical problems with withholding information?  Fundamentally, questions about who needs to know what open new doors of inquiry for the design of scientific research studies, regulatory institutions, and courts.  With a foreword by Larry Lessig, the book surveys the theory, practice, and future of blinding, drawing upon leading authors with a diverse range of methodologies and areas of expertise, including medicine, law, forensic sciences, philosophy, economics, psychology, sociology, and statistics.  It is available for pre-order from the publisher and Amazon.com.

Some Commentary on How to Think About Secondary Research with Biospecimens

The public comment period on the NPRM to revise the Common Rule has just closed, and now we wait to see what happens (if anything), and when.  One of the most controversial proposals in the NPRM would require at least broad consent for secondary research with biospecimens (i.e., research on specimens originally collected for another purpose, either clinical care or a different study), regardless of whether those specimens retain identifiers.  This is a substantial change from the status quo, which does not require consent for such research with de-identified specimens.  How should we feel about this status quo, and the proposed change?  My own view is that it’s really not so bad: the risks to individual research participants are quite low, and the current approach facilitates critically important scientific advancement.  There is certainly room for improvement, e.g., to impose punishment on those who would act to re-identify de-identified specimens without permission, to inform the public that such research takes place, and to educate them about its value, perhaps allowing those who still feel very strongly that they prefer not to be included an opportunity to opt-out.  But what has been actually proposed has more problems than what it would replace, and in fact, wouldn’t solve some of those it seems to be a response to.

Rebecca Skloot feels otherwise.  She is the author of a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the origin of one particularly important cell line – HeLa  – derived from cells that had been excised from Ms. Lacks in the course of a 1951 surgery to treat her cancer, and later used for research without her knowledge or permission.  Ms. Lacks was poor, uneducated, and black, and her descendants have also faced more than their fair share of adversity.  Ms. Skloot paints a compelling story of exploitation, but in my opinion, it is much more effective as a narrative about the horrible and enduring legacy of racism in this country than as proof that researchers who conduct secondary research with biospecimens without consent (as permitted under the current regulations, remember) or even without profit-sharing have behaved badly. After all, if individual risks are low and social benefits high – both true – then what’s the problem?  And it is far from clear that specimen sources deserve compensation for no other reason than that their discarded material actually proves valuable to scientists.  Nonetheless, the book has been used as a rallying cry by people from all walks of life who believe that they should be allowed to control whether, and potentially how, their specimens are used for research. Indeed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is probably the single most important development that pushed the proposed revisions to the Common Rule forward, for the first time since they were released in 1991.

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Bill Sage Webcast on Health Law v. Health Policy

As part of the Regulatory Science series at University of Arizona:
Health Law and Health Policy: A Frictional Account
William M. Sage, MD, JD, University of Texas
Today 12/2 — Noon (AZ Time) / 2pm Eastern / 11am Pacific
The talk will be webcast live, and available as an archive:

https://streaming.biocom.arizona.edu/event/index.cfm?id=26074

Participants in the live webcast will have the opportunity submit questions and comments.  Please do!

Wednesday Webcast: “Gene Patenting, Innovation Incentives, and the Future of Intellectual Property” by Derek Bambauer

This week, my colleague Derek Bambauer will speak as part of the Regulatory Science series at the University of Arizona.  Free CLE attendance form and readings are available.

Tune in at 12:00pm (Pacific) / 3:00pm (Eastern) on Wed Sept 16.

https://streaming.biocom.arizona.edu/event/?id=26071

The talk will also be archived at the same link.

New DTCA Guidance — Enough to Empower Consumers?

Bill of Health contributor Christopher T. Robertson has a new Op-Ed out in the New England Journal of Medicine:

As one of only two countries that permit direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals, the United States tasks the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with regulating that advertising to ensure that it doesn’t mislead consumers. When a drug maker publishes or broadcasts a claim that its drug has benefits in a particular disease, the FDA requires it to include information on the product’s risks as well. Since it’s not feasible for companies to include all the important information about their products in a television ad, the FDA requires them to refer viewers to more complete information, such as that in a printed magazine ad. Companies have tended to comply with this requirement by supplementing colorful, persuasive ads with one or two pages of dry text providing the required disclosures, often simply using language that the FDA has approved for other purposes, such as package inserts for prescribers. But research shows that most patients who attempt to read these disclosures find them difficult to understand, and many don’t even try to make sense of them.1 Now, the FDA is in the process of adjusting its DTCA rules, aiming to provide greater assurance that patients receive due warning of the most significant risks — but its tweaks probably don’t go far enough to really empower consumers to make smart decisions about the drugs they put into their bodies. […]

Read the full article here.

North, West, and the Direction of FDA Enforcement in the Social Media Age

Co-blogged with University of Arizona Fellow, Jonathan Loe

Breathlessly, many news outlets reported yesterday that Kim Kardashian West was in trouble with the FDA for misleading social media advertising of the drug Diclegis. For example, the reliably hyperbolic Daily Mail led with “Kim Kardashian slammed by FDA.” 

As followers of this blog may not know, Mrs. Kardashian West is pregnant with her second child.  Following on the disappointing news that the soon-to-be sibling of baby “North West” will not be named South, the celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake shared a post on Instagram (and Facebook, and linked to from Twitter, naturally).  The post announced for the world that “OMG” her “#morningsickness” had benefited from a prescription of Diclegis—with “no increased risk to the baby.” The FDA issued a warning letter, because the social media post failed to communicate any risk information.

But is the FDA really concerned with people, however famous, commenting on their personal experiences with drugs?

The answer is…

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New browser app shines light on conflicts of interest

By: Christine Baugh

A new Google Chrome extension puts the spotlight on conflicts of interest. The browser app, available for free download here, was created at the Hacking iCorruption hackathon event held March 27-29 in Cambridge, MA. The event, co-sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and the MIT Center for Civic Media (hosted at the MIT Media Lab) brought together individuals with a variety of backgrounds and skills to work toward the common mission of fighting institutional corruption, in this case by creating practical tools. This project was one of several exciting tools created at the hackathon (information about other projects available here), and it won first prize among the projects.

The Chrome extension, called Unearth, puts funding and conflict of interest information on the abstract page of PubMed research articles. Christopher Robertson, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Arizona James E. Rodgers College of Law and Edmond J. Safra Center Fellow who was a member of the Unearth team, explains the rationale for the browser extension in this Youtube video. In short, conflict of interest and funding disclosures are often placed at the end of a research article and are generally unavailable on the abstract page. This makes it impractical for physicians and other research scientists to pay appropriate attention to this important information. Research from the Cochrane Collaboration has demonstrated that research studies funded by industry generally describe “greater benefits and fewer harmful side effects” than their non-industry funded counterparts. Thus, taking the source of research funding into account when reading a new research study is critical. Although the extension currently only works for open access articles from PubMed Central, this includes several million research articles for which funding and conflict of interest information was previously much more difficult to obtain. Additionally, the developers plan on expanding the breadth of coverage in the coming weeks. Continue reading

Open Payments: Early Impact And The Next Wave Of Reform

This new post by Tony Caldwell and Christopher Robertson appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a provision in the Affordable Care Act, seeks to increase the transparency of the financial relationships between medical device and drug manufacturers, physicians, and teaching hospitals. Launched on September 30, 2014 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Open Payments database collects information about these financial relationships and makes that information available to the public.

As of early February, the Open Payments database includes documentation of 4.45 million payments valued at nearly $3.7 billion made from medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers to 546,000 doctors and 1,360 teaching hospitals between August 2013 and December 2013. This included 1.7 million records (totaling $2.2 billion) without the names of physicians or teaching hospitals who received the payments.

These records were intentionally de-identified by CMS because the records had not been available for review and dispute for 45 days, or because the records were not matched by CMS to a single physician or teaching hospital due to missing or inconsistent information within the submitted records. Future reports will be published annually and will include data collections from a full 12 month period. […]

Continue reading here.

Call for nominations for an Outstanding Junior Scholars Award from RWJF’s Public Health Law Research Program

Do you know of a doctoral student or scholar who finished his or her last degree in 2009 or later, and who has produced excellent empirical research on the relation of law or legal practices to population health?  If so, please consider submitting a nomination by December 10.  It’s quick and easy.

The Father of Sunshine

Paul Thacker

Over at our sister blog for the Safra Center’s Institutional Corruption Lab, Paul Thacker has a great post about how the Physician’s Payments Sunshine Act came to exist. The new database created by the Act is just now going live, and its a good time to reflect on how we got here. Thacker was a staffer for Senator Chuck Grassley, and from that vantage, has rare insight into how the bill was conceived and how initial objections of Big Pharma were overcome. Thacker also outlines several complementary efforts, including pressure to reform NIH policies around conflicts of interest. That proposal went all the way to the White House, where it was gutted. Worth reading.

8 Facts (and some pretty graphs) that explain what’s wrong with American Healthcare

This single webpage (Vox) covers about 80% of what I try to convey during the first day of my health law class.  And the page does it with some nice graphics, which are worth stealing (ahem, “fair using” for educational purposes).  While nothing will be new to health policy scholars, it is a nice synthesis.  Highly recommended.

The Political Economy of Medicaid Expansion

Many health law profs have wondered about how state officials can turn down bucketloads of federal money, without suffering the ire of their local constituents.  In states like Arizona, that frustration was spoken most vocally by the local healthcare industry and their employees, who have the most to gain from the expansion of coverage, even if the Medicaid beneficiaries are unlikely to themselves have political clout.

Well, over at the New Yorker, Sam Wang has now compiled the polling data for the gubernatorial races to ask whether “In Swing States, Is Obamacare an Asset?”  This graphic tells the whole story, focusing on states where Republican incumbents who made Medicaid-expansion decisions are now up for re-election:

Chart09-09-updated[1]

Although voters respond to a mix of positions and personalities, and these are only nine states, it is striking that the governors who declined federal money to cover their most vulnerable are also the most vulnerable at the polls.

#BELHP2014 Panel 3, Behavioral Economics and Health Care Costs

[Ed. Note: On Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3, 2014, the Petrie-Flom Center hosted its 2014 annual conference: “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.”  This is an installment in our series of live blog posts from the event; video will be available later in the summer on our website.]

Our third panel, moderated by PFC Academic Fellow Matthew Lawrence, addresses the use of behavioral economics techniques to control health care costs.  Speakers are Christopher T. Robertson, Brigitte Madrian, Ameet SarpatwariAnupam Jena, and Jim Hawkins.  (Many projects are co-authored, but I’m only listing the presenters here)

The first speaker is Professor Christopher T. Robertson, coming from Arizona Law but visiting Harvard and the PFC this year, speaking on Cost-Sharing as Choice Architecture.  He starts by talking about the cost side of cost sharing, which we know works in reducing consumption from empirical evidence; from the RAND study, it reduced use without reducing health.  More recent studies also confirm this.  But cost sharing presents four problems:

  1. Underinsurance relative to ability to pay
  2. Indiscriminate reductions in health care (more of an ax than a scalpel)
  3. An unfair tax on sickness (more tentative if we can solve the first two)
  4. The burden of deciding.

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#BELHP2014 Plenary 1, Provost Alan Garber

Provost Garber at the Conf

Provost Garber at the Conf

[Ed. Note: On Friday, May 2 and Saturday, May 3, 2014, the Petrie-Flom Center hosted its 2014 annual conference: “Behavioral Economics, Law, and Health Policy.”  This is the first installment in our series of live blog posts from the event; video will be available later in the summer on our website.]

Alan M. Garber is Harvard’s provost, and both an economist and a physician by training.  He holds appointments in the medical school, the faculty of arts and sciences, the school of government, and the school of public health.   [Perhaps I should have just listed the colleges that haven’t yet given him an appointment?]  I’ll mostly just paraphrase Garber’s talk, and sparsely add my own comments in brackets [as I just did].

Garber’s talk is focused on the Affordable Care Act, and says that it has two purposes:  expand access to care, and reduce the costs of care.  The latter is particularly important, given the way healthcare is impinging on the larger United States economy.

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FOR HARVARD STUDENTS: TOMORROW: Dallas Buyers Club: Free Film Screening and Discussion

Image by christian razukas from Wikimedia Commons.

Dallas Buyers Club: Free Film Screening and Panel Discussion

April 16, 2014 6:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall 1010, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

Students from across Harvard are invited to view a free screening of the Academy-award winning film Dallas Buyers Club and participate in a panel discussion about issues addressed in the film related to access to health care for the HIV community.  The panel discussion will address the following issues: the history of access to care and treatment for HIV; ongoing issues with fair pricing of HIV medications; the role of the FDA in access to experimental medicines; and the portrayal of HIV and LGBTQI individuals in the media as it impacts access to individual and public health resources. Panelists include:

  • Robert Greenwald, Director, Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation; Clinical Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Faculty Affiliate, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Grace Sterling Stowell, Executive Director, BAGLY: Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

This event is open to students from all Harvard schools.  No pre-registration is required.

This event is co-sponsored by the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation; the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics; and Lambda at Harvard Law School.

FOR HARVARD STUDENTS: 4/16: Dallas Buyers Club: Free Film Screening and Discussion

Image by christian razukas from Wikimedia Commons.

Dallas Buyers Club: Free Film Screening and Panel Discussion

April 16, 2014 6:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall 1010, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

Students from across Harvard are invited to view a free screening of the Academy-award winning film Dallas Buyers Club and participate in a panel discussion about issues addressed in the film related to access to health care for the HIV community.  The panel discussion will address the following issues: the history of access to care and treatment for HIV; ongoing issues with fair pricing of HIV medications; the role of the FDA in access to experimental medicines; and the portrayal of HIV and LGBTQI individuals in the media as it impacts access to individual and public health resources. Panelists include:

  • Robert Greenwald, Director, Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation; Clinical Professor of Law, Harvard Law School
  • Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Faculty Affiliate, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Grace Sterling Stowell, Executive Director, BAGLY: Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth

This event is open to students from all Harvard schools.  No pre-registration is required.

This event is co-sponsored by the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation; the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics; and Lambda at Harvard Law School.

TOMORROW: Frances Kamm’s Bioethical Prescriptions: Book Talk and Panel Discussion

Please join us on February 27 at 2:00pm in Wasserstein 1019 at the Harvard Law School as we launch Professor Frances Kamm’s latest book, Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives (Oxford University Press, January 2014). The book showcases Professor Kamm’s articles on bioethics as parts of a coherent whole, with sections devoted to death and dying; early life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); genetics and other enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); allocating scarce resources; and methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Panelists include:

  • Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University; Former Senior Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Thomas (Tim) Scanlon, Jr., Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

This event is free and open to the public. For questions, please contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and BioethicsEdmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

2/27: Frances Kamm’s Bioethical Prescriptions: Book Talk and Panel Discussion

Please join us on February 27 at 2:00pm in Wasserstein 1019 at the Harvard Law School as we launch Professor Frances Kamm’s latest book, Bioethical Prescriptions: To Create, End, Choose, and Improve Lives (Oxford University Press, January 2014). The book showcases Professor Kamm’s articles on bioethics as parts of a coherent whole, with sections devoted to death and dying; early life (on conception and use of embryos, abortion, and childhood); genetics and other enhancements (on cloning and other genetic technologies); allocating scarce resources; and methodology (on the relation of moral theory and practical ethics).

Panelists include:

  • Frances Kamm, Littauer Professor of Philosophy & Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University; Former Senior Fellow, Petrie-Flom Center
  • Norman Daniels, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Population Ethics and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Thomas (Tim) Scanlon, Jr., Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity, Faculty of Arts & Sciences, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Christopher T. Robertson, Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Associate Professor, James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

This event is free and open to the public. For questions, please contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

Sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics; Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University; and the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School; with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Open Questions in Health Law?

As I prepare to teach the health law survey course here at HLS in the spring, I am putting together some exercises for students to work on “open questions” in the field. For example, I am thinking about tasking a group of students to explore ways that insurers could or already do structure their contracts with patients and providers to prevent pharmaceutical companies from using coupons to undermine cost-sharing burdens. (Medicare simply does so with the anti-kickback statute.) I have another question about whether the inventor of a new medical device could use crowd-sourcing (e.g,. kickstarter) to raise funds for product development, without running afoul of the FDA proscriptions on unapproved marketing. I would love to get your ideas about open questions in other areas, including bioethics, medical malpractice, public health law, scope of practice, etc. Please post them in the comments or contact me. I’m happy to reciprocate.

Progress is Possible in the Institutional Corruption of Healthcare

Today, there are two big stories that relate to the “institutional corruption” of medicine (aka conflicts of interests).  For those who have been working long and hard on these issues, they are cause for hope.  The needle does move.

First, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has decided that it will stop paying doctors to promote their drugs.   My prior work has shown that such payments are quite common (e.g., 61% of urologists and 57% of gastroenterologists taking money), and that they likely influence the prescribing decisions of the doctors who take such money.  In recent months, Glaxo has made several such moves towards greater transparency and integrity, often as a result of threatened or actual criminal prosecutions.  (See their newfound commitment to opening up their clinical trial data too.)

The NYT story quotes an industry consultant suggesting that the move to stop paying physicians is a result of the Affordable Care Act’s “sunshine” requirement that such payments will be disclosed, and that several other drugmakers are considering similar moves. I am a bit skeptical that the disclosure mandate had such an effect, since the disclosures were already required by Massachusetts and other states, and as part of the “corporate integrity agreements” that came of several federal prosecutions.  My sense is that such disclosures are not likely to reach patients in a useable way, so its hard to understand how the transparency could really impose much of a disincentive on the companies.  Yet, something has caused Glaxo to change course.

Second, the National Football League has decided to give the National Institute of Health $30 million to study brain injuries.  The counterfactual is that the NFL could have kept the money, of course.  But the more interesting alternative is that the NFL could have just spent the money itself, hand-picking the researchers and carefully specifying how the research should be performed, in order to buy the scientific conclusions that it preferred. This has been the classic strategy of industries facing litigation risk, from tobacco, to asbestos, and now the paper industry, whose law firm actually commissions scientific studies on its behalf.  The NFL’s move instead proves that it is possible for a self-interested party to nonetheless fund independent, credible, gold-standard research, by using an intermediary, such as the NIH.

This is exactly the sort of reform that I have called for, as an alternative to the false dichotomy between public funding and private interest. For companies that have a bona fide interest in discovering and publicizing the scientific truth, a credible intermediary like the NIH can reassure consumers of scientific information that it is valid.  Now, if only we can get big pharmaceutical companies to make the same move for their clinical trials and other scientific research studies.  Perhaps the first-movers will be the most innovative companies who have bona fide products and are tired of them being lost in the cheap talk?  If physicians making prescribing decisions continue to give greater credence towards NIH-funded research, such integrity could be rewarded.

 EDIT:  Corrected link to NFL story on NYT, and corrected amount from $100M to $30M.  Also, disclaimer: I am not involved in this Petrie Flom Center collaboration with the NFL, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.