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

By Brad Segal

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

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

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

Legal Levers for Health Equity through Housing: A New Research Project

Health equity in housing can be defined as the absence of disadvantage to individuals and communities in health outcomes, access to health and social services, and quality of health and social services based on a person’s dwelling or neighborhood.

Lack of housing access, poor housing conditions, and income or racial segregation all have been shown empirically to cause negative health outcomes. Law has a pervasive role in housing, and has for a long time. Law was instrumental in creating and maintaining segregation through mechanisms like red-lining, restrictive covenants and zoning. The Civil Rights movement brought an end to explicitly discriminatory policies, and new finance and inclusionary zoning policies helped create millions of units of affordable housing, but we still have a long way to go. As Matthew Desmond’s work shows, drastic improvements are needed in how governments enforce housing codes and balance the rights of landlords and tenants. The bottom line is that too many of our people have trouble affording decent housing in neighborhoods with the amenities for healthy living, and too many of our neighborhoods are still segregated.

Our team at the Center for Public Health Law Research has been selected as a research hub in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action Program. For the next 20 months, we will be using empirical research and legal scholarship to analyze the housing crisis through the lens of law. We know that law shapes environments and behaviors, so we are searching for the links between laws, their intended and unintended effects on the housing market, and the health outcomes that follow. We will be bringing a focus on law and its mechanisms to a field rich in policy research. Our aim is to investigate how law influences health equity in housing, and offer recommendations about how it can be a lever for greater equity. We hope to engage the community of non-profits, advocacy groups, policy think-tanks, and social scientists who are working on identifying problems and finding solutions, as well as the community of legal scholars and litigators working on housing issues. In our recommendations we plan on both identifying steps to incrementally advance housing equity through existing law, and envisioning creative changes to the legal framework itself.

We are excited to engage the housing policy and the law community in a discussion about legal levers for health equity through housing. We also look forward to sharing our work with you as we go, here and on the Policies for Action website. Please stay tuned!

If you are interested in continuing this discussion please reach out to Abraham Gutman at Abraham.gutman@temple.edu

Organs and Overdoses: The Numbers (Part I)

By Brad Segal

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

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

figure-1

Figure 1

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

Health Care Politics in the US South

by Emma Sandoe

Courtesy of Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health, and Society http://www.vanderbilt.edu/mhs/the-politi…

This month I attended the Politics of Health Care in the US South conference held at Vanderbilt. This conference was cosponsored by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest. Instead of a lengthy conference summary, I’ll attempt to capture some of the key lessons I learned to better understand the politics of the South.

What is the South?

There is no other region of the country with such a strong personal identification and complex emotional reaction as the South. Californians don’t identify as “Westerners;” “New Englander” inspires connotations of sleepy scenes of snow and hot chocolate; and while you may get a rare character that strongly identifies as a “Midwesterner,” there is a clear difference in the passion that a Minnesotan speaks of their homeland compared to a Tennessean. But despite the fact that the words “the South” strikes passion in its residents, historical and modern important moments in our nations conversation on race, and a specific cultural identity, there is really no common definition of the geographic South. Modern politics make the inclusion of Maryland and DC counter to our understanding of the deep red political vote. Texas and Florida have their own unique identities and their vast populations often skew any analysis of the region. Each unique issue in the South first requires a definition of what geographic region you are discussing.

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Thought about Breastfeeding and Civil Liberties

Breastfeeding is known for being an extremely politicized issue. Past decades introduced us to different interest groups advocating for and against the ideal of “Breast is best”. A recent book by Courtney Jung called ‘Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy’ describes how the ideal of breastfeeding became a focal point of consensus among conflicting political groups like environmentalists and capitalists, leftists and conservatives and many more. The book reveals troubling regulatory schemes which sanction non-breastfeeding moms by denying benefits and iron rich food for their babies. This pattern of body governance echoes Dorothy Roberts’ book ‘Killing the Black Body’ which described how procreation decisions made by poor-black-women, are constantly sanctioned and regulated by the state in order to achieve social objectives, for example, by conditioning welfare benefits in an installation of permanent contraceptives.

In Roberts’ book, a clear distinction is made with respect to the reproductive liberty of black and white women. The contraceptive pill, which symbolizes the emblem of reproductive freedom and is highly identified with the feminist movement, was the product of a scientific endeavor greatly motivated by conservative groups’ desire to control population through family planning schemes, historically targeting the fertility of poor black women. In a similar way, the ideal of “breast is best” has also been operating differently with respect to race and economic status. In Linda Blum’s bookAt the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in Contemporary United States’ she conducts interviews with women who didn’t nurse. She found that in contrast to white women who strove for outer respectability and experienced their lack of breastfeeding as a failure to conform with the breastfeeding imperative, black women emphasized their use in feeding instruments as significant for their independence which was highly evaluated. Accordingly, statistics show generally lower breastfeeding rates among black women in the US.

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New Developments in the Guatemala STD Experiments Case

In the late 1940s, US government scientists, in collaboration with Guatemalan counterparts, were involved in a horrible array of experiments on human subjects in which a variety of vulnerable groups in Guatemala were intentionally infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid and left without treatment. [For more on how they ended up in Guatemala and the ethics of intentional infection studies, see my work here and here.] The experiments were done without consent and without scientific rigor, violating both contemporaneous and modern ethical standards.  They were not uncovered, however, until a few years ago when a historian discovered the files in the midst of doing archival research on one of the scientists, who had also been involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study in the US.

Since her discovery, the US and Guatemalan governments have both issued apologies and reports condemning the studies (here and here), and the US pledged a relatively small amount of money to support the Guatemalan government’s efforts to improve surveillance and control of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases in that country. However, individual compensation to the victims of the experiments and their families has not been forthcoming; the victims calls for a voluntary compensation program to be established have gone unheeded, and they have also been unable to prevail in court, for a variety of jurisdictional and technical reasons.

As Glenn Cohen and I argued following the victims’ first court loss in 2012, compensation is a moral imperative.  We expressed support for a voluntary compensation program, but in its absence, alternative mechanisms of justice are essential.  Therefore, we were heartened to hear that a petition for the victims was just filed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala, represented by the UC Irvine School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and The City Project of Los Angeles.  The petition claims violations of the rights to life, health, freedom from torture, and crimes against humanity under both the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the denial of a right to a remedy for human rights violations.

There are still a number of hurdles ahead, not the least of which is determining which individuals would actually be entitled to compensation, as the record keeping in the initial experiments was so poor and so much time has passed.  But we are heartened that advocates are still pressing forward for these victims and hope that justice, though certainly delayed, will not continue to be denied.

More information on the petition is available here.

Premiums in Medicaid: The (not so) Recent Trend

By Emma Sandoe

Requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to pay premiums and other cost-sharing for medical services is not new to the Medicaid expansion debate. Premiums were introduced as part of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Previously, states were prohibited from imposing enrollment fees, premiums, or deductibles for any categorically eligible individual in the Medicaid program. This law allowed states to implement minimal cost-sharing for waiver demonstrations, but prohibited states from denying medical care due to an inability to pay.

Since this law was passed, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has clarified that certain populations including pregnant women and children were exempt from most cost-sharing. Additionally, certain services are exempt from copayments and coinsurance entirely. The maximum amount that can be charged varies based on wage and type of service and where the beneficiary seeks treatment.

Prior to Indiana’s 1115, approved in 2014, CMS did not allow state waivers to charge premiums to individuals making under 50% of the federal poverty line (FPL). Indiana’s expansion plan is unlike any other state’s waiver plans. It requires individuals to pay a “monthly contribution” of $1 a month or 2% of a family’s income which ever is greater. When a beneficiary that has been paying these monthly contributions uses medical services, they are not required to pay co-payments. Previously, Indiana lowered the income eligibility for premiums during its 2013 waiver when it required premiums for individuals making between 50-100% of FPL. Arkansas and Iowa saw that precedent set by Indiana and lowered their cost sharing levels from 100% of FPL to 50%. Continue reading

The Once and Future Cadillac Tax

cadillacOver the last few weeks, health economists have been defending the often politically friendless “Cadillac Tax.” This policy, as part of the Affordable Care Act, will begin taxing certain generous health insurance plans starting in 2018. Since World War II, the IRS has held that employer-sponsored health insurance should not been taxed, costing the federal government $329 billion in lost federal revenue. But, the most pivotal decision in the tax exemption status of employer-sponsored health insurance took place in 1954, not during World War II.

In 1954, when Congress extended the World War II provisions into permanent tax law, Congress decided to do away with the limits imposed on the tax-free status of health insurance. In essence, Congress has already repealed the Cadillac tax back when you could buy a new Cadillac for $5,000.

The Introduction of the Tax:

As part of the World War II price and wage controls, President Roosevelt’s National War Labor Board first put limits on wage increases and would not allow wages to increase greater than 15 percent of 1941 rates. Enterprising employers began offering health insurance coverage to recruit workers, because enticing workers with higher wages was not permitted. This forced the hand of the Board to address the tax status of health insurance.

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What’s the Difference Between Anorexia Nervosa and Hunger Strike?

My last post presented the debate over force feeding hunger striking prisoners in Israel. This post will discuss another group subjected to the dramatic means of force feeding in extreme circumstances, Anorexia Nervosa patients (AN).

Although ethical justifications for force-feeding are similar for both Anorexics and Hunger strikers (save life), the legal framework is completely different in each context. Whereas hunger striking prisoners were dealt with via ad-hoc legislation meant to answer national security threats, AN patients are handled within the framework of mental health law.  In the U.S., compulsory hospitalization of mental patients occurs through the state’s Civil Commitment Laws, which require dangerousness resulting from a mental illness to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

Is the different legal attitude justified? How is it that the same act performed by prisoners is viewed as a political assertion but when done predominantly by adolescent middle-upper class girls, it is considered mental illness?

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Dec 8-10: Seminar Series on Social Medicine in South Africa

By Kelsey Berry

The Harvard School of Public Health Department of Global Health and Population (GHP) is hosting what promises to be a fascinating 2-seminar series on Monday Dec 8 and Wednesday Dec 10 entitled: “A Practice of Social Medicine: South Africa and Beyond.” This event should be of interest to those thinking about models for Universal Health Coverage, community-based approaches to health, history and sociology of medicine and health care delivery, and population-level ethics.

The series will feature Professor Shula Marks, Emeritus Professor, University of London, and Fellow of the British Academy.

A word from the organizers: For just over a decade in the mid-twentieth century, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, South Africa was widely acknowledged as being in the forefront of progressive thought in health care delivery, its distinctive social conditions and developed medical practice making possible an experiment in social medicine with far-reaching implications.  These two lectures trace the story to its South African roots in the 1930s and 1940s, its propagation via the subsequent diaspora of progressive physicians, and its links to kindred developments throughout the world.  Its vision of a community-based, equitable, effective, inclusive, low cost approach to health emphasizing prevention and education may offer a distinctive model for Universal Health Coverage.

*The first lecture South Africa’s Experiment in Social Medicine, 1940-1960: A Model to the World? will be held on Monday December 8th, from 4:30pm to 6:00pm in HSPH Building 1, Room 1208.

*The second lecture Social Medicine in South Africa, 1960s to the Present will be held on Wednesday December 10th, from 4:30pm to 6:00pm in HSPH Building 1, Room 1208

For non-Harvard affiliated attendants, please email mclark@hsph.harvard.edu to arrange for access to the buildings in advance.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Blood Supply

By Emily Largent

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and this semester, I have been fortunate enough to take a class on the Civil Rights Movement with Professor Randall Kennedy.  This has prompted me to examine the influence of race on healthcare delivery in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.  Racism infected all aspects of the healthcare system, including medical schools and schools of nursing, residencies and post-graduate training, professional societies for doctors and nurses, ambulance services, outpatient clinics, staff privileges at hospitals, hospital admissions, and medical research.  Doubtlessly, the color line in medicine compounded physical ills with emotional and dignitary harms.

I find the stories related to the segregation of the American blood supply during World War II to be particularly interesting because they show that discrimination was a national (i.e., not just a Southern) problem, and there is a small connection to Harvard Law School.  Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South by John Egerton has proven to be an excellent source of information on this topic.

Blacks made contributions to the war effort in many capacities.  William H. Hastie, a graduate of Harvard Law School, took leave from his position as Dean at Howard University School of Law (HUSL) to accept an appointment as civilian aide to Secretary of War Stimson.  Charles R. Drew, a physician who had conducted pioneering research on typing, preserving, and storing blood for later transfusion, helped both Britain and the United States establish blood programs to support military operations. In February 1941, Drew was made medical director of the American Red Cross blood bank program.

Late in 1941, the surgeons general of the United States Army and Navy informed the Red Cross that only blood from white donors would be accepted for military use.  Although it had been conclusively proven that there were no racial differences in blood, the military yielded to prevailing social bias and heavy political pressure.  In January 1942, the War Department revised its position, agreeing to accept blood from black donors, though also insisting on rigid adherence to segregation of the blood supply.  The Red Cross not only accepted that decision but declared that it had no interest in trying to settle racial-social controversies.  Later, Red Cross officials “suggested that those who persisted in criticizing the policy were unpatriotically attempting to cripple the blood donor service and thus harm the war effort itself.”  Continue reading

Call for Proposals: The 2016 Brocher Foundation Residencies

By Timo Minssen

I have just been informed that a new call for proposals for the 2016 Brocher Foundation residencies has been launched. I can warmly recommend this splendid opportunity to any researcher or group of researchers in the fields of Bioethics, Medical Anthropology, Health Economics, Health Policy, Health Law, Philosophy of Medicine and Health, Medical Humanities, Social Science Perspectives on Health, Medical Ethics, or History of Medicine.

A grant by the Brocher Foundation enables international researchers to carry out their projects for a 1-4 month period at one of the most beautiful places in Europe. The Brocher Foundation’s seat is located in Switzerland at the shores of the beautiful Lake Geneva. The location is very close to the French border and to international organisations particularly relevant to the health sector, such as WHO, WTO, WIPO, UNHCR, ILO, WMA, ICRC, and others.

The following information has been extracted from the webpage of the Brocher Foundation:  Continue reading

The Constitutional Implications of Ebola: Civil Liberties and Civil Rights In Times of Health Crises

Join us for an important public forum:

Constitutional Implications of Ebola:
Civil Liberties & Civil Rights In Times of Health Crises

This public forum addresses the constitutional and public health implications of Ebola response in the United States.  According to state and federal laws, patient information is deemed private and is to be held in strict confidentiality.  However, in the wake of Ebola, well-established protocols to guard patient privacy have been neglected or suspended without public debate.  At this forum, a panel of experts raise questions not only about how to contain the disease, but also to what extent Americans value their healthcare privacy, civil liberties, and civil rights.  To what extent are Americans’ Ebola fears influenced by the origins of the disease?  What liberties are Americans willing to sacrifice to calm their fears?  How to balance the concern for public welfare with legal and ethical privacy principles?

Speakers: Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.;  Michele Goodwin, Chancellor’s Chair, UC Irvine School of Law;  Professor Andrew Noymer, UC Irvine School of Public Health; and Dr. George Woods, American Psychiatric Association.

This Forum intervenes in the current national and international discourse on Ebola by probing law’s role in addressing public health crises.  This forum is free and open to the public.

WHEN: Wednesday, November 19, 2014, 3.30pm-5.30pm

WHERE: University of California Irvine, School of Law; ROOM EDU 1111, 401 E Peltason Dr, Irvine, CA 92612

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.

Snotty Hand-Washing

Hand-washing is one of the mainstays of public health and of good clinical practice. Images of surgeons with their hands raised in the air, as they enter the OR to have a nurse help them don sterile latex gloves after having meticulously washing their hands, have been immortalized by pop-culture representations of medicine. Indeed, learning the “surgical hand-wash” is one of the glorified coming-of-age rituals for med students. It quite literally initiates aspiring physicians into being legally and morally allowed to cut people open for their own benefit.

Proper hand-washing is crucial for non-surgical clinical practice as well. At my hospital, clinicians are supposed to wash or sanitize their hands as soon as they enter a patient’s room, and after they have made any contact with a patient. And although the procedure for “clinical hand-washing” is much less thorough than its surgical counterpart, there’s still an evidence-based, 11 step process that WHO officially recommends in its annual “SAVE LIVES: Clean Your Hands Campaign.

The rationale for all this rigor in medical practice is pretty obvious, and any hospital-based physician who doesn’t have overly dry skin without moisturizing is probably shirking an important responsibility. However, the clinical obsession over asepticism has spilled over to mainstream culture, but not without some controversy.

Relax: I’m not going to get into the debate over the hygiene hypothesis. I’m also not even going get back on the bacterial-resistance soapbox (except for one quick point–although asepticism in clinical settings certainly does help prevent resistance, it might be counterproductive beyond the clinical setting as wiping out benign bacteria might simply open more ecological space for nastier bugs).

I just want to point out that simple repugnance is probably a better explanation  for the hygiene-neurosis of current times than any legitimate public health concern. Normal people today would probably have seemed like obsessed germophobes fifty years ago. What’s interesting is there’s lots of neat evidence that even the most visceral types of disgust are socially constructed. For example, Norbert Elias’ treatise on snot in “The History of Manners” (1982) describes dinner-table behavior that was deemed perfectly polite by in the most sophisticated European social circles of previous centuries, but which would probably make even the coarsest sailor of today vomit in disgust. I’ll leave you with some highlights, taken from pages 143-148 of this wonderful (yet long, two volume) work by Elias.

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FSMA Conference Part 3: Regulating Farm Production: From Zero to Sixty

[Ed. Note: On Friday, the Petrie-Flom Center, the Food Law and Policy Clinic (a division of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation), the Food Law Lab, and the Harvard Food Law Society (with support from the Top University Strategic Alliance and the Dean’s Office at Harvard Law School) co-sponsored a conference at HLS called “New Directions for Food Safety: The Food Safety Modernization Act and Beyond.”  This week, we will be sharing a series of blog posts from the event, and video will follow shortly.]

By Jason St. John, JD candidate, Harvard Law School

The third conference session, “Regulating Farm Production: From 0 to 60,” was moderated by Robert Greenwald, Director of the Center for Health Law Policy and Innovation at Harvard Law School. To make the presentations more cohesive, the presenters divided each of their fifteen-minute presentations into two seven-minute presentations. The panel discussed the FDA’s proposed Produce Safety rule under the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), the rule’s focus on produce and growing of food, and the large question of whether FSMA makes our food safer.

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Art Caplan on “Accepting Brain Death”

Art Caplan has a new piece, co-authored with David C. Magnus, Ph.D. and Benjamin S. Wilfond, M.D., in the NEJM, addressing the legal and medical reasons for accepting brain death as death. From the article:

Over the past several decades, brain death has become well entrenched as a legal and medical definition of death. It is clearly defined by the neurologic community […], standards for diagnosis are in place, and it is established in law. It has become the primary basis of organ-procurement policy for transplantation. Ironically, the other standard for defining death, irreversible cessation of circulation, lacks consensus about diagnosis.

The concept of brain death has periodically come under criticism.4  Continue reading

Ethics and Oversight in Recombinant Genetic Research

By Michael Young

In 1972, biochemist Paul Berg and his student Janet Mertz published groundbreaking details of their first successful attempt at devising a procedure to cleave separate pieces of DNA and recombine them into a single novel molecule.  These innovations, dubbed recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology, spurred a flurry of concerns from members of the scientific community who worried about the safety, risks and potential drawbacks of creating recombinant DNA molecules.  Motivated by these concerns, the NIH established the Recombinant DNA Molecule Program Advisory Committee (RAC) in 1974.  The RAC was charged with the mission of overseeing research and implementation of rDNA technologies, with a particular focus on proposals involving the transfer of recombinant or synthetic DNA into humans (i.e., human gene transfer).

Last week, after nearly 40 years of providing an additional layer of oversight to this class of research, the RAC received recommendations from an independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that was convened to assess “whether the current oversight of individual gene transfer protocols by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC) continues to be necessary.”

The committee’s report calls for significant changes to the prevailing structures of rDNA research regulation and oversight, and represents a victory for many gene transfer researchers who have challenged RAC regulations. Continue reading