Musings from a nursing home

 

It has been five months today since my sister had the first of many brain surgeries for a burst aneurysm. I was visiting her yesterday, and the visit prompted the following random bioethical thoughts.

Health-care payment reform – My sister is in a nursing home, and until recently had been receiving various therapies. Earlier this month her insurance ran out, and suddenly — without notice — now she receives none.

This situation is not surprising, given the claptrap patchwork of healthcare payment that passes for a system in our country. The health-care payment reform debate has been so politicized — that is, it has become a tool of political power that each party wields as a weapon against its opponent — that rational, ethical discourse on the subject seems to have been left in the dust. There is a more ethical way to deliver health care; however, as long as we leave it up to lobbyists, interest groups, and two political parties that seem more intent on power than government, we will see increasing numbers of people left in the medical and political dust.

Human dignity – By some standards, my sister might be thought of as having lost her human dignity. Before June 11th she was an energetic, triathlon-running, blog-posting woman; now we are excited if she can manage a hand-squeeze or a groan. By some estimations, she might be said to have a “life not worth living.” According to some bioethicists, she doesn’t have what it takes to be treated with the respect due to human persons. I’m sure glad they haven’t been taking care of her these last five months.

The search for a cure – Putting aside for the purpose of argument all of the insurmountable hurdles that have to be overcome, imagine for a moment that the fondest dreams of certain researchers reach fruition, and that embryonic stem-cell therapy for brain trauma becomes a reality. Imagine (you have to imagine, because it is all imaginary at this time, never mind the rhetoric to the contrary): What if my sister could walk and talk and laugh again, if only we were willing to sacrifice an embryo, “a glob of cells smaller than the period at the end of a sentence,” maybe an embryo leftover from IVF in fertility-clinic-freezer limbo somewhere?

Much of the Church has taken a stand against embryonic stem-cell research, as is right. But it’s easy to oppose something that has no forseeable hope of becoming reality. What would happen if the unthinkable became possible? Would the Church still stand against it? If cures for your daughter’s diabetes, your son’s leukemia, your wife’s brain tumor, your mother’s Alzheimer’s, were an embryo away? Would we be like the liberal bioethicists and find justifications for what we now rightly oppose? Or would we continue to respect all humans, no matter what size or developmental stage, even to our own hurt?

The procurement of organs for transplantation: China vs. the WMA

Can a convict sentenced to death give truly free and informed consent to the harvesting of his or her organs after execution?

There is great difficulty obtaining organs for transplant in China. Much of this is blamed on cultural factors, although suspicion of corruption in the medical profession is also a significant reason. Whatever the reasons, between 2003 and 2009 there were only 130 voluntary organ donations in all of China. Yet in 2006, there were 11,000 organ transplants performed.

So where are all of these organs that are not voluntary donations coming from? Answer: executed prisoners. To its credit, China does try to make sure that prisoners give informed consent. According to Bing-Yo Shi MD and Li-Ping Chen PhD, writing in Wednesday’s JAMA, “If a sentenced convict [in China] would like to donate his organs, the convict and his family must submit an official application and sign an informed consent statement with a lawyer present. Before execution, the convict is asked to confirm his organ donation again, and if consent is reneged, organ procurement is explicitly prohibited.”

However, the World Medical Association (WMA) in its Statement on Human Organ Donation and Transplantation explicitly states that “Because prisoners and other individuals in custody are not in a position to give consent freely and can be subject to coercion, their organs must not be used for transplantation except for members of their immediate family.” (Section F par. 4) In a 2005 resolution the WMA addressed China specifically, stating unequivocally that “The WMA demands that China immediately cease the practice of using prisoners as organ donors.”

In a society such as China’s with such strong biases against organ donation, what are we to make of this large number of sentenced convicts apparently consenting to donation? Are they simply the most altruistic segment of the Chinese population? In the absence of another explanation, one must wonder whether the fact of imminent execution itself is somehow a form of coercion, an external constraint on behavior. In the absence of another explanation, one must wonder whether China or the WMA is right:

Can a convict sentenced to death give truly free and informed consent to the harvesting of his or her organs after execution?

 

(Information for this post came from the letters, “Organ Transplantation and Regulation in China,” and its reply, published on pages 1863-4 of the November 2nd issue of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, which were in response to the article “Regulation of Organ Transplantation in China: Difficult Exploration and Slow Advance,” by Shi and Chen, published on pages 434-5 of the July 27th issue.)

Reflections from the Front: For Whose Good?

Reflections From the Front: For Whose Good?

On October 26, the New York Times published a news story, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/26/health/policy/26vaccine.html?scp=2&sq=hpv%20vaccine&st=cseabout a recent recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that boys and young men should be vaccinated against human papillomavirus, HPV, to protect them from anal and throat cancers resulting from sexual activity. It is much less expensive to vaccinate only the boys who will engage in homosexual sex, but since this is hard to predict, the argument goes, we need to vaccinate them all.

Interestingly, the CDC came out with a similar recommendation for girls in  2006, but fewer than half of the girls between 13 to 17 have received even one dose, and less than a third have received all three required for efficacy.

The cost of administering the vaccine per year would be around $140 million, but the initial costs of catching up on the unvaccinated boys might approach $1 billion. The vaccine would combat several but not all strains of HPV; to provide greatest protection, it would ideally be given prior to any sexual activity. Since by age 15 one of five teens are no longer virgins, the aim would be to vaccinate prior to any sexual activity.

An October 29th editorial, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/29/opinion/the-hpv-vaccine-is-for-their-own-good.html?scp=1&sq=hpv%20vaccine&st=cse, tells us that it is “For Their Own Good”, and strongly encourages that all 11 to 12 year-olds receive the vaccine.

The editorialist cannot help himself. He takes a gratuitous swipe at conservative politicians (identified as Republicans in the first article), and conservatives in general for their reluctance to endorse the vaccine recommendations wholeheartedly. It is always easier to employ ad hominem arguments than it is to seriously address counterarguments to one’s own position. He fails to address:

1)       If this is such a great idea, why is the vaccination rate so low among girls, 5 years after the CDC’s endorsement? Are two-thirds of all Americans conservative, religious Luddites?

2)       Are there alternative ways to decrease the spread of HPV? What are their risks and benefits?

3)       There is no mention of abstention education, which has been proven to reduce sexual activity prior to marriage. http://www.cmda.org/wcm/CMDA/PublicPolicy2/Press_Room1/NewsReleases/2010_News_Releases/Landmark_abstinence_study_.aspx

4)       Contrary to the types of statistics generated by Alfred Kinsey, thoroughly debunked but still occasionally quoted as an authority, a true estimate of homosexual behavior in American males is probably between 1-5%. Is it really reasonable to vaccinate 95-99% of American boys for a disease that is very rare in their population?

Simplistic prescriptions for complex ailments are seldom satisfactory.

TIUBlogNumber4Vaccines.doc

Managing Patients

Many people remember C.S. Lewis not only as a gifted thinker but also as someone who was very funny.  Funny in a typically British, understated, often-profound way.  When reading That Hideous Strength, the last book of his Space Trilogy, I laughed again and again at his many references to the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments.  Yes, you got that right: the N.I.C.E.  This vast array of committees and investigators would finally bring a “really scientific era” to managing society, and eventually all the ills of the country would be deciphered and cured.   And of course building this grand enterprise meant bulldozing a large part of a quiet university town—all for the sake of noble, or at least “nice,” goals.  True, one might have to keep the citizenry in the dark on what actually was going on inside the N.I.C.E., but of course this would be for their benefit.  (“You musn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!”)  The book is great commentary on misguided human endeavors and is prescient on many of the bioethics matters of today.  But what is most entertaining is that the N.I.C.E. is indeed alive and well in the United Kingdom: the National Institute for Health Clinical Excellence, a.k.a. NICE.  More on this in a moment.

Christ and the Canaanite Woman by Germain-Jean Drouais (1784)

During the past five weeks of my Psychiatry Clerkship, I’ve seen that we are often in a position to simply do the best for patients with the little we have.  Many of our patients suffer from life-long substance abuse, others are being monitored because of signs they might harm someone, and others are there at the request of the courts.  It’s easy to fall into a “managing patients” mode of just keeping things from getting out of hand but never really helping the patient recover from his illness.  (Especially when the patio re-modeling keeps some patients from being able to go outside for two weeks.)

One of the populations that figure prominently into “patient management” is that group diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.  NICE has dual concerns of managing resources as well as managing antisocial patients who may cause harm to society in the form of criminal activity, for instance.  NICE working groups have to come up with guidelines for handling these patients.  For instance:

Pharmacological interventions should not be routinely used for the treatment of antisocial personality disorder or associated behaviours of aggression, anger, and impulsivity.  Pharmacological interventions for comorbid mental disorders, in particular depression and anxiety, should be in line with recommendations in the relevant NICE clinical guideline.

Psychological interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, on the other hand, were found to be wise uses of funds in working with these patients.

It is easy to click through a patient roster quickly in order to carry out management guidelines and lose a sense of the human being who is at dis-ease because of an illness.  This is why I think Christian hospitals and places of rest for the mentally ill offer something that our modern health care systems do not: their reason for being is first the healing ministry of Jesus, seeing that the ill become whole.

For more information

Black Americans and Healthcare

The USA Today recently reported on the difficulties faced by African-Americans seeking healthcare in Alabama.  Death rates are higher for most categories of illness in black communities.  Oftentimes, physicians are unfamiliar with the obstacles encountered by residents in a particular neighborhood, such as the lack of fresh, healthy food in the grocery stores.  USA Today touts a new federal Health and Human Services program as a first step in identifying health disparities.  Churches provide support groups that assist in educating people about their health.  However, there is little time or money being spent by the Christian community to build clinics in communities such as this one in Alabama.  An overall infrastructure for providing charitable ministries is missing.

In Texas, it is common for people to say that if a person wants to have good healthcare they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  An African-American friend of mine at Trinity once told me in response, “The problem is, some people don’t have any straps.”

Is a CT Scan an Ethical Issue?

All third-year students at Texas A&M are required to attend Saturday-morning radiology lectures, and I was surprised to hear my professor speak for the final 30 minutes yesterday on when not to order imaging.   Radiology is his life’s calling, but he recognizes that imaging studies like the CT scan can be harmful.  Of the $2.3 trillion spent on healthcare in the U.S., the largest share is spent on imaging, totaling $800 million.  CT scans have become a part of the American vernacular, but it is estimated that 1/3 of them are unnecessary.  What ethical issues concern the use of imaging in healthcare?

  • Patient Safety: Concerning chest scans, an X-Ray exposes the patient to 0.1-0.2 mSv of radiation, but the CT dose is 8.0 mSv.  At 50 mSv a person is at increased risk of cancer, so minimizing the number of exposures to a CT scan should be an important goal in healthcare.
  • Cost: Some of the ballooning in healthcare costs over the last decade is due to tests ordered by physicians.  Many doctors order tests not because they are indicated by the patient’s symptoms but because they serve as an extra layer of protection in the case of a lawsuit.  The irony of such defensive medicine is that one day a doctor may find himself in court for exposing the patient to too much radiation.  Patients never see the thousands of dollars of imaging charges, so they often authorize such studies and let the insurance companies handle the rest.
  • Physicians Lining Their Pockets: Research has shown that physicians increase the number of scans ordered when they are able to bill for the use of their own equipment.  One gastroenterologist related to me how his clinic moves a number of unnecessary endoscopies through his office for various reasons.  An endoscopy does entail some risk and is certainly not comfortable, but every CT scan is sure to expose the patient to radiation.  Physicians should refrain from allowing revenue strategies to trump good medical practice.

For more information on radiology, visit www.radiologyinfo.org.

Cancer, Hold the Chemo

Admittedly there are some things that I would never conceive could possibly “run out” or “dry up,” even in the worst economic times. As a non-doctor, drugs are one of those things.

But imagine, if you will for a moment, having to call your friends to see if they could get you the much needed drug that your hospital could not supply. If you do not get the drug, you will not be able to keep your disease under control…

This is exactly what happened to Thomas Kornberg, a professor with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma who was forced to contact doctor-friends to supply his need.

The American Hospital Association just issued a press release showing the results of their recent survey that exposed this apparent drug shortage:

  • Hospitals report that they have delayed treatment (82%) and more than half were not always able to provide the patient with the recommended treatment
  • Patients got a less effective drug (69%)
  • Hospitals experienced drug shortages across all treatment categories
  • Most hospitals rarely or never receive advance notification of drug shortages (77%) or are informed about the cause of the shortage (67%)
  • The vast majority of all hospitals reported increased drug costs as a result of drug shortages
    • Most hospitals are purchasing more expensive alternative drugs from other sources

The AHA has proposed some solutions: They want to establish early warning systems of shortages, remove regulatory obstacles, improve communication among stakeholders, and explore incentives to encourage drug manufacturers to stay in, re-enter or initially enter the market.

Clearly Kornberg is not the only case,

So what happened to the other people who don’t have the connections/resources that he does?

How are hospitals to deliberate on the dispersion of scarce resources?

Even more concerning, if this becomes a trend, will there be an even larger motive for inconspicuous sales?

 

Breaking News: Insurance Coverage Affects Access to Health Care!!

 

Okay, so maybe it’s not breaking news:  the type of insurance you have may affect whether or not you can get in to see a doctor.  In particular, if you have Medicaid-Chidren’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) insurance (sometimes called “Public Aid”), you might have trouble finding a doctor who will see you.

In a study published in the June 16th New England Journal of Medicine, women posing as mothers of children with common health conditions called 273 pediatric specialist clinics throughout Cook County, Illinois.  They made two calls, one month apart, to each clinic, trying to get appointments for their purported children.  The calls were identical, except that one time the callers said they had Medicaid-CHIP insurance;  the other time, they said they had Blue Cross Blue Shield, a “good” private insurance.  The results are unsurprising but sobering:  66% of the callers reporting Medicaid-CHIP coverage were denied an appointment, compared with 11% of those reporting private insurance coverage.  For those Medicaid-CHIP patients who did get appointments, the average wait for the appointment was 42 days, compared to 20 days for the privately insured.

On the surface, one might attribute these inequalities to a bunch of bad, greedy doctors.  The reality, however, is more complex.  In Illinois, Medicaid-CHIP pays about 20 cents on the dollar (when it finally gets around to paying, which is sometimes six months after the fact).  Because of this, physicians may actually be spending more money than they take in for each Medicaid patient they see.  One can only  do that for so long and still keep the doors open and the lights on.  No, the inequalities do not merely stem from the behaviors of individual, money-hungry doctors;  the inequalities are built into a disastrously flawed system.

I am looking forward greatly to the upcoming CBHD conference examining the “Scandal” of Christian influence on bioethics.  Christians are perceived as being very concerned about issues like abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and embryonic stem cell research, which threaten human dignity by estimating a person’s worth based on their age, appearance, or utility to society.  But it seems that we are perceived as being less concerned about the structural, systemic factors built into our health care “system” which daily lead to insults to human dignity by estimating a person’s worth based on their pre-existing conditions, income, or occupation (i.e., their ability to get insurance).  I wonder, if we Christians really stood out in society because of our concern for the latter as well as for our concern for the former, whether we might not have a greater hearing and make a greater difference in all areas of bioethics.  (Remember Mother Theresa?)

Hope to see you at the Conference!

The Business of Drugs

I went to my first drug rep dinner the other night at Smith & Wollensky in Houston’s Highland Village.  The high-end steaks and 20+ bottles of wine left nothing to be desired by the nurses and physicians in attendance.   Research shows that being wowed with a nice meal influences later decision-making.  Yes, I could see how the memory of one of those juicy steaks could prompt a doctor to select a particular medication.

Special thanks to Joe Gibes for bringing to light how pharma business practices stymie important medical treatments.  I worked in business for over 7 years, and I saw two types of businesspeople.  One type focused on presenting the merits of the product and gave the buyer room to evaluate it and make a decision on a purchase.  This person would refrain from the pressure sales pitch and would frankly state what the product could and could not do.  Sometimes this went so far as recommending a competitor who sold a product that fit the customer’s needs better.  The other type of salesman I encountered had a different approach.   Marketing techniques were more about allurement rather than presenting one’s ware.  These folks were jovial types always given to conversation, but all the backslapping often left the customer with an uneasy feeling.

Business reform in general is needed in our country, but more is at stake when unethical business practices impact the field of medicine.  Since a person’s well-being is in the balance, extra care and protections must be employed.  I often hear medical students comment, “I can’t really do anything about the drug business.  It’s just the way things are.  I might as well enjoy the free meal.”  But don’t we owe it to our patients to remove any taint from medical care when their very lives are concerned?  Our Savior was a humble man, and there is no doubt his humility opened the door for His effective healing ministry.  Such a disposition sets an entirely different tone for healthcare, which our medical system desperately needs.

Thanks, GAVI!

In a world full of inequities in health care including a child mortality rate in some developing countries that continues to be alarming, it is good to recognize those who are making a difference.  The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) recently announced that they had entered into agreements with several vaccine manufacturers to obtain vaccines for developing countries at reduced costs.

GAVI is an international organization that attempts to unite donor nations, private donors, developing nations, international organizations, and immunization suppliers to meet the goal of saving children’s lives and protecting people’s health through better access to immunizations.  In the ten years from 2000 to 2010 more than 288 million children were immunized with GAVI-funded vaccines, and an estimated 5 million deaths prevented.

Organizations like GAVI deserve our thanks and support for making a positive impact on the lives of children around the world.