“The real possibility of an AIDS-free generation:” HIV Prevention and the Internet

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

Last November, the National Health Executive (NHS) in the UK lost an appeal in the UK Court of Appeal regarding their failure to fund PrEP for individuals at risk of contracting HIV. PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis is a common term for regimes of anti-viral medication taken by individuals to lower their risk of being infected with HIV. Marketed as Truvada, clinical test results published by the National institute of Health in 2010 declared that the treatment could reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 90%, a rate that seemed farcical even in a world where information about HIV is more accessible than ever, and medical experimentation with cures has been steadily gaining steam. Based on those results, the U.S. Center for Disease Control issued interim guidelines for using the drug, despite the fact that it was over a year away from FDA approval, aware that doctors had been prescribing it off-label for HIV treatment. The titular quote is from former President Obama, speaking on World AIDS Day in 2011 about the breakthrough that PrEP represented. The story raises some fascinating questions about how doctors interact with experimental medicines when facing down diseases that will otherwise seriously compromise quality of life for patients, and even kill, but nonetheless remain unsanctioned by national healthcare providers and largely available through backchannels.

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IRBs Advise Physician Involvement in Informed Consent

By Nadia N. Sawicki

Much has been written about the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s recent decision in Shinal v. Toms, in which the court held that a physician’s duty to obtain informed consent, as codified in Pennsylvania’s MCARE Act, is non-delegable. According to the court, a physician faced with an informed consent suit cannot defend himself on the grounds that the patient was adequately informed of the risks and benefits of treatment by a physician assistant, nurse, or other intermediary acting under the physician’s direction. Pennsylvania is not the first state to adopt this view – courts in other jurisdictions (Connecticut, Louisiana, South Dakota, Texas, New Mexico) have similarly held that the duty to secure informed consent rests with the treating physician alone.

The MCARE (Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error) Act was passed in 2002 to reform Pennsylvania’s medical malpractice laws, and refers to the duties and rights of “physicians” and “patients.” Shinal, likewise, addressed the issue of informed consent in the context of medical treatment. Thus, I was very surprised to learn that some commercial institutional review boards (IRBs), in reliance on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision, have been advising clinical trial investigators to revise their consent forms and processes to ensure that physician-investigators – and not recruitment coordinators, nurses, or other study staff – secure the consent of research participants.

Schulman, one of the most well-known commercial IRBs, recently posted about the Shinal case on its website; while noting that the case focused on medical malpractice “and does not address consent in the research context,” it advised investigators to “discuss with their legal counsel the impact of this decision on their consent process.” Sterling IRB had a similar post, advising investigators to “consider drafting consent form updates to clearly require that only physician members of the research team may obtain informed consent from a research subject.” In an e-mail that went directly to investigators and study staff, Sterling also suggested that they submit updated consent forms that “make clear that the only person who can obtain consent is the PI/physician.” A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Research Best Practice, titled “What Impact will the Shinal Case have on Informed Consent in Clinical Research?,” offered a more detailed analysis of the case, and concluded that “there is little to suggest that courts would not uniformly apply the same informed consent standards used in the medical practice to clinical research.” Continue reading

Should Medical Offices Be Run Like Law Firms?

By Shailin Thomas

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that a physician cannot delegate obtaining informed consent from a patient to a member of her staff.  In Shinal v. Toms, a neurosurgeon perforated a patient’s cranial artery while resecting a tumor, which led to hemorrhaging, brain damage, and partial blindness.  The patient alleged that had she known the full risk of the surgery, she would have opted for a less dangerous course of treatment.  While the risks were communicated to the patient, they were communicated by the physician’s assistant, not the neurosurgeon himself.  After the lower courts both ruled for the physician, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed, holding that the courts below erred in allowing the jury to consider statements made by the physician’s assistant to the patient — because responsibility to obtain informed consent is the physician’s alone and cannot be delegated.  According to the court, “[i]nformed consent requires direct communication between physician and patient, and contemplates a back-and-forth, face-to-face exchange.”

While requiring physicians to give risk information in person sounds appealing, it runs counter to efforts to utilize physician time more efficiently.  Physician time is expensive — and rightly so.  After college, medical school, internship, residency, and any number of fellowships, physicians have undergone a staggering amount of training.  In light of this investment in human capital, it’s no surprise that the hourly rate for anything a physician does is astronomical. This makes sense when those hours are spent performing neurosurgery, reading radiographs, or engaging in other activities that require the full extent of a physician’s medical training.  But it can lead to sizable inefficiencies when those hours are spent on tasks which can be readily done by qualified staff members, such as nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and medical assistants, at a fraction of the hourly rate.

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CAVEAT HOSPITIA: Suits Alleging Negligent Credentialing Against Hospitals Get Exemption from Tort Reform

By Alex Stein

Policymakers and scholars interested in medical malpractice and torts generally should read Billeaudeau v. Opelousas General Hospital Authority, — So.3d —-, 2016 WL 6123862 (La. 2016). In this recent and important decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that suits alleging negligent credentialing against a hospital sound in regular negligence, rather than medical malpractice, and consequently fall outside the purview of the state’s Medical Malpractice Act (MMA) and its limitations on liability. The Court made this decision in connection with the state’s cap on damages recoverable in medical malpractice actions, La. Rev. Stat. § 40:1231.2(B)(1), which limits the total amount that courts can award the victim to $500,000, plus interest and cost, on top of the victim’s future expenditures on medical care and support. For many victims of medical malpractice and their families this cap amount is meager, but the Court nonetheless upheld its constitutionality back in 1992. See Butler v. Flint Goodrich Hosp., 607 So.2d 517 (La. 1992).

The Court has now decided that suits alleging negligent credentialing against hospitals are not subject to this cap and that successful plaintiffs consequently will recover full compensation for any proven damage. Continue reading

Fetal Consequentialism and Maternal Mortality

By Nadia N. Sawicki

It is well known that maternal mortality rates in the United States are higher than in other countries in the developed world, and that many of these deaths are preventable. But a report published by NPR last week, just a few days before Mother’s Day, drew a direct link between these poor maternal outcomes and health care providers’ focus on fetal health. The report quotes Barbara Levy, vice president for health policy and advocacy at the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who said, “We worry a lot about vulnerable little babies, [but] we don’t pay enough attention to those things that can be catastrophic for women.” According to the authors of the NPR report, “newborns in the slightest danger are whisked off to neonatal intensive care units … staffed by highly trained specialists prepared for the worst,” while new mothers are instead monitored by nurses and physicians “who expect things to be fine and are often unprepared when they aren’t.”

These patterns are consistent with what Prof. Jamie Abrams calls “fetal consequentialism” – the premise that the birth of a healthy child outweighs any harm to the birthing mother. The increase in U.S. maternal mortality rates highlighted in the NPR report is certainly a product of such fetal consequentialism. So is the practice of obstetric violence, described in my previous posts, where health care providers dismiss birthing mothers’ informed requests for minimal intervention during labor and delivery in an effort to reduce the risk of fetal harm, even when that risk is minimal. Fetal consequentialism is likely driven not only by providers’ judgments of the relative liability risks for harms to fetuses versus harms to mothers, but also by conservative societal trends (evidenced by increasing anti-abortion legislation) that preference fetal interests over maternal interests. Continue reading

A Quarter of the Work Force: International Medical Graduates and the Lives They Save

By Wendy S. Salkin

On Monday, May 1, 2017, International Workers’ Day, thousands took to the streets across the United States to demonstrate in support of immigrants’ rights in the United States and against immigration policies recently rolled out by President Trump.

Among the Presidential Actions taken by President Trump during his first hundred days in office has been the issuance of his “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order, issued just two weeks ago on April 18, 2017, in which the President states that “[i]t shall be the policy of the executive branch to buy American and hire American.” What is meant by “hire American” is detailed in section 2(b) of the Executive Order:

Hire American. In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests, it shall be the policy of the executive branch to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad, including section 212(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(5)).

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Birth Plans as Advance Directives

By Nadia N. Sawicki

There is growing public recognition that women’s autonomy rights during labor and delivery are being routinely violated. Though such violations rarely rise to the level of egregious obstetric violence I described in an earlier blog post, women recognize that hospital births, even for the most low-risk pregnancies, often involve cascades of medical interventions that lack evidence-based support and can have negative health consequences for both mother and child. Indeed, evidence suggests that an increasing number of women are pursuing options like midwife-assisted birth, delivery in free-standing birthing centers, and even home birth in an effort to avoid interventionist hospital practices. According to the 2013 Listening to Mothers Survey, nearly six in ten women agree that birth is a process that “should not be interfered with unless medically necessary.”

One tool that women frequently use to increase the likelihood that their autonomous choices will be respected during labor and delivery is the birth plan, a document that outlines a woman’s values and preferences with respect to the birthing process, and serves as a tool for facilitating communication with care providers. However, while most women view the creation of a birth plan as empowering, there is little evidence to suggest that the use of birth plans actually improves communication, increases women’s feelings of control, or affects the process or outcome of childbirth. In fact, there appears to be some resistance within the medical community to women’s reliance on birth plans, with one article describing “the two words ‘birth plan’ strik[ing] terror in the hearts of many perinatal nurses.”  Continue reading

Negligent Failure to Prevent Suicide in the Age of Facebook Live

By Shailin Thomas

In 2016, Facebook unveiled a new tool that allows users to post live streams of video directly from their phones to the social media platform. This feature — known as “Facebook Live” — allows friends and followers to watch a user’s videos  as she films them. Originally conceptualized as a means of sharing experiences like concerts or vacations in real time, the platform was quickly adopted for uses Facebook likely didn’t see coming. In 2016, Lavish Reynolds used Facebook Live to document the killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by the Minneapolis police, sparking a national debate surrounding police brutality and racial disparities in law enforcement. Recently, another use for Facebook Live has arisen — one that Facebook neither foresaw nor wants: people have been using Facebook Live as a means of broadcasting their suicides.

This tragic adaptation of the Facebook Live feature has put Facebook in a tough spot. It wants to prevent the suicides its platform is being used to document — and just a few weeks ago it rolled out real-time tools viewers of Live videos can use to identify and reach out to possible suicide victims while they’re filming — but it’s often too late by the time the video feed is live. Accordingly, Facebook is focusing its efforts at identifying those at risk of suicide before the situation becomes emergent. It currently has teams designing artificial intelligence algorithms for identifying users who may be at risk for suicide. These tools would scan Facebook users’ content, flagging individuals that have warning signs of self-harm or suicide in their posts.

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TOMORROW: Critical Pathways to Improved Care for Serious Illness

Close up of helpful carer hand and happy old man

Friday, March 10, 10:30am – 2:30pm

Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East BC, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

Join leading health care executives, experts, policymakers, and other thought leaders as they embark upon a project to develop a guiding framework for providing improved care for people with serious illness. You are invited to observe the inaugural working session where distinguished panelists will discuss innovations in program design and pathways for delivering high quality care to an aging population with chronic illnesses, especially those with declining function and complex care needs.

Check out the full agenda and list of roundtable participants on the website!

Attendees are welcome to participate in Q&A sessions, and lunch will be provided. Please RSVP for lunch here.

This project is funded by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, and this convening is part of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. 

Bill of Health Blog Symposium: How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine

We are pleased to host this symposium featuring commentary from participants in the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences event, “How Patients Are Creating Medicine’s Future: From Citizen Science to Precision Medicine.”  Below, Susan M. Wolf tees up the issues.  All posts in the series will be available here.

How Patients Are Creating the Future of Medicine: Roundtable at the University of Minnesota

By Susan M. Wolf, JD (Chair, Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences; McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy; Faegre Baker Daniels Professor of Law; Professor of Medicine, University of Minnesota)

Citizen science, the use of mobile phones and other wearables in research, patient-created medical inventions, and the major role of participant-patients in the “All of Us” Precision Medicine Initiative are just a few of the indicators that a major shift in biomedical research and innovation is under way. Increasingly, patients, families, and the public are in the driver’s seat, setting research priorities and the terms on which their data and biospecimens can be used. Pioneers such as Sharon Terry at Genetic Alliance and Matthew Might at NGLY1.org have been forging a pathway to genuine partnership linking patients and researchers. But the legal and ethical questions remain daunting. How should this research be overseen? Should the same rules apply as in more conventional, academically driven research? What limits should apply to parental use of unvalidated treatments on children affected by severe, rare disease? And should online patient communities be able to set their own rules for research?

In December 2016, the University of Minnesota’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences convened four thinkers with diverse academic and professional backgrounds to analyze these trends. This event, “How Patients Are Creating Medicine’s Future: From Citizen Science to Precision Medicine” was part of the Consortium’s Deinard Memorial Lecture Series on Law & Medicine, co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Bioethics and Joint Degree Program in Law, Science & Technology, with support from the Deinard family and law firm of Stinson Leonard Street. To see a video of the event, visit http://z.umn.edu/patientledvideo.

The four speakers offered diverse and provocative perspectives, each of which is highlighted in this series.

Citizen-Led Bioethics for the Age of Citizen Science: CRexit, BioEXIT, and Popular Bioethics Uprisings

By Barbara J. Evans, MS, PhD, JD, LLM (Alumnae College Professor of Law; Director, Center on Biotechnology & Law, University of Houston)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

The citizen science movement goes beyond merely letting people dabble in science projects. It involves giving regular people a voice in how science should be done. And citizen science calls for a new, citizen-led bioethics.

Twentieth-century bioethics was a top-down affair. Ethics experts and regulators set privacy and ethical standards to protect research subjects, who were portrayed as autonomous but too vulnerable and disorganized to protect themselves. The Common Rule’s informed consent right is basically an exit right: people can walk away from research if they dislike the study objectives or are uncomfortable with the privacy protections experts think are good for them. An exit right is not the same thing as having a voice with which to negotiate the purposes, terms, and conditions of research.

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Participant Power

By Jason Bobe, MSc (Associate Professor, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; Executive Director, Open Humans Foundation; Co-founder, DIYbio.org)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here. Jason Bobe will be participating in an NIH videocast on return of genetic results in the All of Us research program starting at 8AM on Monday, March 6, 2017.  You can tune in here

People across the world regularly rank health and health care near the top of what they value. Yet most people don’t volunteer to participate in organized health research. This is the “participation paradox.” We appear to be neglecting the very inquiry that feeds our ability to understand our bodies and to evaluate approaches to preserve, improve, or recover health from disease.

Better advertising and more effective recruitment strategies for research studies may help drive numbers up. But catchy slogans won’t drive a cultural shift toward a new future, where research participation becomes a regular part of life and organized health research is seen as a first step toward solving our health challenges, not merely the last hope for people with devastating illnesses.

Given how long it took patient-centered medicine to catch on, participant-centered research may face a long road ahead. Warner Slack was publishing about “patient power” at least as far back as 1972 (in his chapter on “Patient Power: A Patient-Oriented Value System,” in Computer Diagnosis and Diagnostic Methods, edited by John A. Jacquez, 1978). More than forty years later, great strides have been made, yet “patient power” is still a work in progress.

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The Wearables Revolution: Personal Health Information as the Key to Precision Medicine

By Ernesto Ramirez, PhD (Director of Research & Development, Fitabase)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

Personal health data has historically been controlled by the healthcare industry. However, much has changed in the last decade. From wearable devices for tracking physical activity, to services that decode the personal microbiome, there has been an explosion of methods to collect and understand our personal health and health behavior. This explosion has created a new type of data that has the potential to transform our understanding of the deep interactions of health behaviors, exposure, and outcomes — data that is large-scale, longitudinal, real-time, and portable.

New devices, applications, and services are creating large amounts of data by providing methods for collecting information repeatedly over long periods of time. For example, I have tracked over 20 million steps since 2011 using a Fitbit activity tracker. Many of the new tools of personal health data are also connected to the Internet through Bluetooth communication with smartphones and tablets. This connectivity, while commonly used to update databases as devices sync, also provides an opportunity to view data about ourselves in real-time. Lastly, there is an increasing interest in making this data accessible through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow third parties to access and analyze data as is becomes available. Already we are seeing unique and useful tools being developed to bring consumer personal health data to bear in clinical settings, health research studies, and health improvement tools and services.

The availability of this type of personal health data is having a big impact. The examples provided by the #WeAreNotWaiting and #OpenAPS communities showcase the groundbreaking potential of portable, usable, personal data. It is transforming the quality of life for individuals living with type 1 diabetes. Through access to data from continuous glucose monitors and wireless control of insulin pumps, over 100 individuals have implemented their own version of an artificial pancreas. These pioneering individuals are at the forefront of a revolution using personal health data to take charge of care and customize treatment decisions.

Personal health data will play a major role in the future of precision medicine, healthcare, and health research. Sensors will continue to improve. New data streams will become available. More analytical tools will surface. There will be more support for portable and sharable data. The availability of large-scale, longitudinal, and real-time personal health data will improve not only the ability of individuals to understand their own health, but when pooled, may produce new insights about what works, for what people, under what conditions.

Patient-Driven Medical Innovations: Building a Precision Medicine Supply Chain for All

Kingshuk K. Sinha, PhD (Department Chair and Mosaic Company-Jim Prokopanko Professor of Corporate Responsibility Supply Chain and Operations Department, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota)

This post is part of a series on how patients are creating the future of medicine.  The introduction to the series is available here, and all posts in the series are available here.

While the promise and potential of precision medicine are clear, delivering on that promise and making precision medicine accessible to all patients will require clinical adoption and a reliable and responsible supply chain. We already know this is a big problem in pharmacogenomics technology; the science is advancing rapidly, but clinical adoption is lagging. While Big Data can be a powerful tool for health care – whether it be an individual’s whole genome or an online aggregation of information from many patients with a particular disease – building implementation pathways to analyze and use the data to support clinical decision making is crucial. All of the data in the world doesn’t mean much if we can’t ensure that the development of precision medicine is linked with the efficient, safe, and equitable delivery of precision medicine.

Effective implementation means addressing the stark realities of health disparities. Leveraging citizen science to develop and deliver precision medicine has the potential to reduce those disparities. Citizen science complements more traditional investigator-driven scientific research and engages amateur and non-professional scientists, including patients, patients’ families, and communities across socio-economic strata as well as country boundaries.

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March 10: Critical Pathways to Improved Care for Serious Illness

Close up of helpful carer hand and happy old man

Friday, March 10, 10:30am – 2:30pm

Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Hall, Milstein East BC, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

Join leading health care executives, experts, policymakers, and other thought leaders as they embark upon a project to develop a guiding framework for providing improved care for people with serious illness. You are invited to observe the inaugural working session where distinguished panelists will discuss innovations in program design and pathways for delivering high quality care to an aging population with chronic illnesses, especially those with declining function and complex care needs.

Check out the full agenda and list of roundtable participants on the website!

Attendees are welcome to participate in Q&A sessions, and lunch will be provided. Please RSVP for lunch here.

This project is funded by the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, and this convening is part of the Project on Advanced Care and Health Policy, a collaboration between the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. 

ACA Repeal and the End of Heroic Medicine

By Seán Finan

Last week, I saw Dr Atul Gawande speak at Health Action 2017. Healthcare advocates and activists sat around scribbling notes and clutching at their choice of whole-food, cold-pressed, green and caffeinated morning lifelines. Gawande speaks softly, lyrically and firmly; the perfect bedside manner for healthcare advocates in these early days of the Trump presidency. He calmly announced to the congregation that the age of heroic medicine is over. Fortunately, he continued, that’s a good thing.

Gawande’s remarks echoed a piece he published in the New Yorker. He writes that for thousands of years, humans fought injury, disease and death much like the ant fights the boot. Cures were a heady mixture of quackery, tradition and hope. Survival was largely determined by luck. Medical “emergencies” did not exist; only medical “catastrophes”. However, during the last century, antibiotics and vaccines routed infection, polio and measles. X-rays, MRIs and sophisticated lab tests gave doctors a new depth of understanding. New surgical methods and practices put doctors in a cage match with Death and increasingly, doctors came out with bloody knuckles and a title belt. Gradually, doctors became heroes and miracles became the expectation and the norm. This changed the way we view healthcare. Gawande writes, “it was like discovering that water could put out fire. We built our health-care system, accordingly, to deploy firefighters.”

But the age of heroic medicine is over. Dramatic, emergency interventions are still an important part of the system. However, Gawande insists that the heavy emphasis on flashy, heroic work is misplaced. Much more important is “incremental medicine” and the role of the overworked and underappreciated primary care physician.

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Obstetric Battery

By Nadia N. Sawicki

In 2013, Kimberly Turbin came to Providence Tarzana Medical Center for a momentous occasion – the birth of her first child. In the delivery room, she was surrounded by supportive family members. Her mother stood by her side with a video recorder, hoping to capture the once-in-a-lifetime event for posterity.

And this is where Kimberly’s birth story veers off course. According to the complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court against her OB/GYN, Dr. Alex Abbassi, Kimberly is a survivor of sexual assault who had confided in the medical staff that she had previously been raped. She requested that the staff ask permission before touching her, and asked them to “be gentle.” And when Dr. Abbassi told Kimberly during delivery that he would be performing an episiotomy – a surgical procedure in which the perineum and vaginal wall are cut to provide more room for the baby to pass through the vaginal canal – Kimberly objected. When she asked why the episiotomy was necessary, Dr. Abbassi provided no medical justification. He responded, “What do you mean, Why? I am the expert here! … You can go home and do it! You go to Kentucky!” Kimberly continued to object, loudly saying “No!” and “No, don’t cut me!” numerous times. Dr. Abbassi proceeded nevertheless, cutting her perineum twelve times. A video of this entire encounter, which is extremely graphic and difficult to watch, is viewable on YouTube.

These allegations, if true, present a textbook case of battery – the defendant intended to cause contact with the patient, the contact was harmful and offensive, and the contact was neither consented to nor justified by any emergency. And yet, when Kimberly filed suit for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, Dr. Abbassi moved to dismiss her suit – he argued that because Kimberly’s claim was grounded in the failure to obtain informed consent, it constituted negligence under California’s medical malpractice laws and therefore was barred by a shorter statute of limitations. In June of 2016, however, Judge Benny Osorio denied Dr. Abbassi’s motion to dismiss the battery claim, holding that the “alleged act of proceeding against the express wishes of Plaintiff … is premised on intentional misconduct and not professional negligence.”

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Artificial Intelligence, Medical Malpractice, and the End of Defensive Medicine

By Shailin Thomas

Artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms are the centerpieces of many exciting technologies currently in development. From self-driving Teslas to in-home assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, AI is swiftly becoming the hot new focus of the tech industry. Even those outside Silicon Valley have taken notice — Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and the MIT Media Lab are collaborating on a $27 million fund to ensure that AI develops in an ethical, socially responsible way. One area in which machine learning and artificial intelligence are poised to make a substantial impact is health care diagnosis and decision-making. As Nicholson Price notes in his piece Black Box Medicine, Medicine “already does and increasingly will use the combination of large-scale high-quality datasets with sophisticated predictive algorithms to identify and use implicit, complex connections between multiple patient characteristics.” These connections will allow doctors to increase the precision and accuracy of their diagnoses and decisions, identifying and treating illnesses better than ever before.

As it improves, the introduction of AI to medical diagnosis and decision-making has the potential to greatly reduce the number of medical errors and misdiagnoses — and allow diagnosis based on physiological relationships we don’t even know exist. As Price notes, “a large, rich dataset and machine learning techniques enable many predictions based on complex connections between patient characteristics and expected treatment results without explicitly identifying or understanding those connections.” However, by shifting pieces of the decision-making process to an algorithm, increased reliance on artificial intelligence and machine learning could complicate potential malpractice claims when doctors pursue improper treatment as the result of an algorithm error. In it’s simplest form, the medical malpractice regime in the United States is a professional tort system that holds physicians liable when the care they provide to patients deviates from accepted standards so much as to constitute negligence or recklessness. The system has evolved around the conception of the physician as the trusted expert, and presumes for the most part that the diagnosing or treating physician is entirely responsible for her decisions — and thus responsible if the care provided is negligent or reckless. 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

American Psychiatric Association Releases Formal Position Statement on Euthanasia

By Wendy S. Salkin

End of Life Care, NIH

Image Source: NIH Consensus Development Project

Last month, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released a position statement on medical euthanasia. The statement, approved by the APA Assembly in November and approved by the Board of Trustees in December, states:

The American Psychiatric Association, in concert with the American Medical Association’s position on medical euthanasia, holds that a psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.

According to the APA Operations Manual, APA position statements “provide the basis for statements made on behalf of the APA before government bodies and agencies and communicated to the media and the general public.”

For those who are wondering, What’s the American Medical Association’s [AMA] position on medical euthanasia?, here is your answer: From Section 8 of Chapter 5 (“Opinions on Caring for Patients at the End of Life”) of the AMA Code of Ethics: Continue reading