You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Group Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ Group products and services via our Group site.

BMJ

An Attack of the What-Ifs

25 Oct, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Among the comments to the last post, there’s this from Parmenion59:

So…if a cure for lung cancer is found, and the study has been funded through money from a tobacco company…the BMJ won’t publish said study?
Way to go BMJ.

Hmmm.  At least on the face of it, this looks like an important point – one that deserves a bit of unpacking.  We can begin by distinguishing between responses to this particular point, and responses to the general idea behind it.  First things first.

I’m willing to bite the bullet and admit without worrying too much that the policy of not accepting papers funded by the tobacco industry may mean that some research is not publicised.  There’s a small handful of reasons why I’m willing to do that.  One of them – admittedly the weakest of the lot – is based on the idea that it’s not wholly clear that much tobacco money really is directed at finding a cure for lung cancer, rather than firefighting other research about the detrimental properties of tobacco.  But that, as I say, is weak, based on suspicion rather than anything enormously substantial; and even if the hunch is correct, it’s merely empirical rather than anything conceptual.  Still, even if the hunch is wrong, it shouldn’t matter, because there’re stronger reasons.

One is based around the idea that there’s a special providence in the fall of a pipette – or, put another way, you can’t keep a good truth down.  If something is there to be discovered and is worth the effort, then it’ll be discovered sooner or later; if not by Smith, then by Jones.  And, because scientific progress is invariably a matter of the accretion of the work of several teams, all working independently and making minor discoveries, rather than one heroic person who would be solely responsible for The Cure For Cancer ™, the loss of one paper here and there probably won’t make all that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. If that’s correct, then the idea that we might lose the cure for cancer is not all that compelling – not one about which we should worry too much.

A final reason is that, as I’ve said before elsewhere, I’m not persuaded that research is obligatory: it’s admirable, but not required by duty.  There’s a range of second-order arguments one might present here, but most relevant has to do with the benefits that research might generate.   more…

Smoking out Tobacco Industry-Supported Research

18 Oct, 13 | by Iain Brassington

BMJ Open, along with a couple of other journals, published a statement a couple of days ago saying that they’d no longer accept papers based on research wholly or partially funded by the tobacco industry.  The gloss on the statement is damning:

The tobacco industry, far from advancing knowledge, has used research to deliberately produce ignorance and to advance its ultimate goal of selling its deadly products while shoring up its damaged legitimacy.  We now know, from extensive research drawing on the tobacco industry’s own internal documents, that for decades the industry sought to create both scientific and popular ignorance or “doubt.”  At first this doubt related to the fact that smoking caused lung cancer; later, it related to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke on non-smokers and the true effects of using so called light or reduced tar cigarettes on smokers’ health.  Journals unwittingly played a role in producing and sustaining this ignorance.

Some who work within public health and who buy the notion of “harm reduction” argue that the companies that now produce modified cigarette products and non-cigarette tobacco products, including electronic nicotine delivery devices (e-cigarettes), are different from the tobacco industry of old, or that the tobacco industry has changed. For “hardened” cigarette smokers who can’t or won’t quit cigarettes, the argument goes, new tobacco products could represent potential public health gains, and company sponsored research may be the first to identify those gains.

But one fact remains unassailably true: the same few multinational tobacco companies continue to dominate the market globally and, as smaller companies develop promising products, they are quickly acquired by the larger ones. However promising any other products might be, tobacco companies are still in the business of marketing cigarettes. As US federal court judge Gladys Kessler pointed out in her judgment in the case of US Department of Justice versus Philip Morris et al, the egregious behaviour of these companies is continuing and is likely to continue into the future.  And just this summer documents leaked from one company showed a concerted campaign to “ensure that PP [plain packaging of tobacco products, bearing health warnings but only minimal branding] is not adopted in the UK.”  The tobacco industry has not changed in any fundamental way, and the cigarette—the single most deadly consumer product ever made—remains widely available and aggressively marketed.

What should we make of the policy?

A bad argument against the ban – yeah, I know that that misses some linguistic subtlety, but it’s close enough – is that it’s a violation of free speech: it really is no such thing, for the simple reason that noone is trying to stop the tobacco industry making its case – a right to free speech doesn’t imply a right to a platform.  Of course, if every reputable publisher denies the industry a platform, than this might be a de facto rather than de jure curb on free speech – but that’s just the way it goes: just as noone gets to insist that a particular person gives them a platform, they don’t get to insist that they be provided with one at all.  (Also – though it doesn’t apply in this case – merely to splutter “B…b.. but free speech!” isn’t an argument anyway.)

Still, I guess I am uneasy about a ban. more…

Fitness to Practise Revisited

26 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

***UPDATE: Important codicil at the end***

Back in March, I posted something about what I took to be a slightly odd Fitness to Practise decision by the GMC in respect of one Mohammed Al-Byati.  Via the BMJ, here’s another case that seems a bit strange:

A doctor who abducted her six year old daughter from her estranged husband nearly two years ago and took her to Pakistan has been struck off by a panel of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS).

[...]

The MPTS panel, sitting in Manchester, acknowledged that Dar’s conduct did not relate to her medical practice.  But panel chairman Michael Whitehouse said that misconduct could also involve conduct “of a morally culpable or otherwise disgraceful kind,” which could prejudice the reputation of the profession.

The emphasis is mine, though it’s the stuff about the “reputation of the profession” that intrigues me.  If Dar has breached a court order, or is a kidnapping suspect, then fine – but that’s a matter for the courts.  She perhaps wouldn’t be able to practice if found guilty and imprisoned, but that’s a different matter.  It’s not obviously the GMC’s business.

Now, sometimes a profession might have an interest in disciplining people who misuse their association with it.  more…

Torture and Fitness to Practise

12 Mar, 13 | by Iain Brassington

I’m running a bit late with this, but the BMJ reported last week that Mohammed Al-Byati had been suspended from the medical register for 12 months for complicity in torture.  So far, the decision hasn’t been uploaded to the list of Fitness to Practise decisions, but the outline of the case is available here, on the “upcoming hearings” calendar:

The Panel will inquire into the allegation that between December 1992 and March 1994, Dr Al-Byati visited camps and prisons in his capacity as a doctor in Iraq.  It is alleged that during these visits and whilst administering treatment, Dr Al-Byati knew that some prisoners he treated had sustained injuries as a result of torture, and it was likely that the prisoners would be tortured again.  It is also alleged that as a consequence of Dr Al-Byati’s engagement in these events, he was complicit in acts of torture.

The BMJ report relates that

the panel decided not to end his career by erasing him from the medical register, after accepting that he played no part in the torture and had effectively no choice but to carry out orders.  He told the panel that he had been “terrified” of what would happen to him and his family if he did not do as he was told.   The panel’s chairman, Michael Whitehouse, said, “He was a junior doctor whose behaviour was being controlled by a dictatorial, totalitarian regime which used systematic, widespread, and extremely grave violations of human rights to control the population.  Dissent from orders was not tolerated.

There’s a couple of things that’re perplexing about this.

The first is that it’s not clear how close to the torture process Al-Byati actually was.  The FtP outline simply alleges that he knew the people he was treating had been tortured, and that they probably would be again.  The BMJ repeats this.  Al-Byati appears to have denied knowing it, but it’s not clear to me that it’d’ve mattered if he had known: treating someone in those circumstances doesn’t amount to endorsement of the torture.

I mean: imagine that you’re working in A&E and someone is admitted whom you suspect strongly (strongly enough for it to count as knowledge in the common-or-garden sense) to have been injured as a result of domestic violence.  You patch up the patient, who then goes home – to face, you suspect almost as strongly, more violence.  It’d be nuts to suppose that you could be criticised as complicit in or even supportive of that violence, though, or that there might be something problematic about treating the patient in the knowledge of what had happened and may happen again.  At most, you might be criticised for not contacting the police or social servives; but that’s a question of confidentiality, and of a totally different stripe – and, anyway, to whom would Al-Byati have reported his concerns?

The other thing that’s perplexing is that noone claims that Al-Byati had any real choice in the matter.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable for a twentysomething medic to agree to provide medical treatment to those who need it, especially when it’s at the request of the state and that state is Ba’athist Iraq.  Maybe he could have refused in principle – but in practice, that kind of refusal may well have been heroic, and it’s odd to criticise someone for not being sufficiently heroic.

In both cases, consider the alternative.  The alternative for the patient is not being treated.  The alternative for the doctor is… well, who can say?  I doubt that there was much scope for conscientious objection.  And remember that the complaint is not that he assisted in the torture, but that he knew about it.

So why apply sanction?  Here’s Michael Whitehouse, the panel chairman, quoted in the BMJ:

He said that the suspension, for the maximum period allowed, was necessary “to demonstrate clearly to him, the profession, and the public that even though his involvement as an accessory to torture was outside his control, such conduct is unacceptable.”

Ummm… Really?  The emphasis is mine, because this is a very, very odd thing to say.  Treating people for the effects of torture is not to be an accessory in any meaningful sense – especially if you didn’t have a realistic choice.  And the pour encourager les autres claim in this context stinks.  I mean, as a principle of justice, my inclination is to think that it’s iffy at best in any circumstance.  But it’s not really as if anyone needs to have it demonstrated that state-sponsored torture is a bad thing to begin with.  And if, mirabile dictu, someone does need to be reminded of that, it’s not clear that they’re going to be swayed by demonstrations of foot-stamping like this.

Note that this case seems to raise questions similar to those raised in respect of medical involvement in capital or corporal punishment.  However, it’s also significantly different from what I can tell.  For one thing, in regimes in which capital or corporal punishment is used and the presence of a medic is mandated as an integral part of that process (for example, if the law demands that a lethal injection be administered by a medical professional), it seems to me that it’d be conceivable that minimally decent doctors would refuse participation, thereby bringing the whole process to a halt.  One might even imagine doctors refusing to be involved as a means of bringing the process to a halt – though you could, alternatively, make a rule-of-law case to insist that medics ought not to aim to undermine valid laws from valid sources, and draw a distinction between conscientious objection that makes the execution of a sentence (and a prisoner) impossible as a side-effect, and more activistic attempts to exert moral pressure on a notionally unjust law.

Whatever.  There’s a debate to be had there, but it doesn’t really speak to this case, because Ba’athist Iraq was not a rule-of-law regime, and (perhaps more importantly) non-participation wouldn’t – on the face of it – have made any real difference, because from the way the story is reported, the presence of a medic like Al-Byati wasn’t a part of the process.  That is: even if Iraq had been a rule-of-law regime, there’s a difference between treating someone who has been tortured and may be tortured again, and treating that person as a part of the torture framework.  There’s no reason to believe that the law required that the torture be overseen by a medic: only that he happened to be the guy closest to hand when the prisoners needed patching up.  Had he not been there, it’s all-too-easy to believe that the torture would’ve happened anyway.

Maybe I’ve missed something about the case.  But from the way it’s reported, it seems possible that the decision has been at least partially determined by the idea that Al-Byati is contaminated by association with bad people.  Either that, or because of PR concerns about the public perception of the matter should the “news”paper to which I do not link get wind of it.

I think that there’s more to be said.  There must be, mustn’t there?

Neonatal Withdrawal of Treatment: A Doctor Writes…

6 Nov, 12 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a great little article recently published in the BMJ about what it’s like to be the medic considering withdrawal of feeding from a neonate.

Survival is often much longer than most physicians think; reflecting on my previous patients, the median time from withdrawal of hydration to death was 10 days.

I had no idea it’d be that long.  I had no idea it’d be that long even for healthy adults who stopped drinking, let alone already-ill neonates.  (My scientifically-naïve intuition would have been that an adult body could stand up to more than an infant one.)

The fact is ethically neutral; and we need to be careful about skipping over the fact/ value boundary too easily.  But value claims bounce off, and are informed by, factual claims, and this is the sort of thing that might well be important when considering questions about withholding and withdrawing treatment, and about killing and letting die, and all the rest of it.

And, of course, the infant isn’t the only morally relevant actor in all this:

It is draining to be the most responsible physician. Everyone is looking to me to preside over and support this process. I am honest with the nurse when I say that it is getting more and more difficult to make my legs walk me on to this unit as the days elapse, that examining the baby is an indescribable mixture of compassion, revulsion, and pain.

I can see how that’d be.

Is Bioethics Really a Bully? Really?

11 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

On his blog in The Independent, John Rentoul has a long-running feature called “Questions to which the Answer is No“.  In it, he examines the kind of screaming rhetorical-question headline much beloved of certain middle-market tabloids: “Is this photographic evidence of Nessie?”, “Does coffee cure cancer?”, “Does coffee cause cancer?”, “Does MMR bring down house prices?“* and so on.

Here’s the first in an intermittent parallel series from me: “Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?“.  For the inaugural post, step forward Dan Sokol, the BMJ”s “ethics man”, who asks in his latest column, “Is Bioethics a Bully?”.  The answer to this is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?.

(A warning before I start: I’m about to go off on one.  Even by my standards, this is big.  You might want to go and make tea.)

The general thesis of the article is this:

Bioethics, in its current form, has bullying tendencies. Ironically, it often adopts a paternalistic attitude towards clinicians, treating them as an ethically deficient species.  Although bioethics should not shy away from pointing out ethical concerns in medical practice, sometimes forcefully, it must not give way to negativism or, worse still, to a zeal to condemn.  Clinicians are easy targets and, without a command of the fancy theories and language of the accusers, possess few means to respond formally.

Is the thesis true? more…

CfP: Criminalizing Contagion: Ethical, legal and clinical challenges of prosecuting the spread of disease and sexually transmitted infections

3 Feb, 12 | by Iain Brassington

The BMJ Group journals Sexually Transmitted Infections and Journal of Medical Ethics, in conjunction with academics at the Centre for Social Ethics and Policy (University of Manchester) and the Health Ethics and Law Network (University of Southampton), would like to publish a collection of articles on the criminalization of disease and sexually transmitted infections. We invite article contributions to be published as part of this themed collection.

Funding has also been sought from the ESRC for a seminar series on the same theme and, if successful, authors contributing to this collection may also be invited to present their papers at one of the seminars (which will take place in winter 2012/13 and summer 2013 in Southampton, and winter 2013/14 and summer 2014 in Manchester).

Themes

The use of criminal law to respond to infectious disease transmission has far-reaching implications for law, policy and practice. It presupposes co-operation between clinicians and criminal justice professionals, and that people who infect others can be effectively and fairly identified and brought to justice. There is a potentially difficult relationship between criminal justice and public health bodies, whose priorities do not necessarily coincide. We are interested in receiving papers of broad interest to an international readership of medical ethics scholars and practicing clinicians on any of the following topics:

·      Legislative and policy reform on disease and sexually transmitted infections

·      Health services and the police: privacy, state interference and human rights

·      Evidence and ethics: prosecuting ‘infectious’ personal behaviours

·      Clinicians and the courts: the role of health professionals and criminal justice

·      The aims of criminalization and public health: a compatibility problem?

·      International comparative studies on disease and criminalization: policy, practice and legal issues

More details below the fold. more…

Suffering and the Human Condition

6 Jan, 12 | by Iain Brassington

I’m currently working my way through the recently-released report by the Commission on Assisted Dying – it’s a long and appropriately life-sapping document, but a number of commentators has been quicker than I to get through it.  Douglas Noble, writing at the BMJ blog, isn’t impressed.  Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m tempted to agree – though for different reasons.

Anyway: Noble makes a claim that’s a bit puzzling:

In political terms this issue is a dead duck – so why the continual fascination by a minority of vocal campaigners?  The answers are complex.  Perhaps, though, it is ultimately because of an inability to accept that suffering is an integral part of our world, common to all who share the human condition. Dealing a fatal injection and dressing it up as dignity is not a solution to suffering and pain. High quality palliative care is part of the answer, but so too is the effect of the affection, love, and commitment (sometimes over long periods of time) that we can show to one another when the worst hand is dealt.

He may be right in the dead-duck bit.  But his comments about suffering are odd. more…

Assisted Dying: Physicians and Metaphysicians in the BMJ

3 Aug, 11 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a slightly curious correspondence taking place in the BMJ at the moment that concerns assisted dying.  Des Spence started things moving with this short piece.  For the most part it is (sorry to say) a slightly pedestrian and simplistic overview of the state of the assisted dying debate.  One of the arguments against AD that he cites, for example, rests on the idea that it violates a doctor’s moral duty – which seems to me to be just the teeniest bit question-begging.  The rest of the anti- paragraph is a shopping list of the standards.  The next paragraph tells us that the pro-arguments are also strong, but he makes the mistake of claiming that it’s autonomy that does the work here.  It ain’t.  Not in respect of assistance.  I don’t violate your autonomy by not helping you to die.

So far, so workaday.  But a potentially interesting point is made next:

[A]ssisted dying is happening every day throughout the NHS. The doctrine of double effect means that doctors give large doses of morphine near the end of life. We know that this will hasten death, but we square this moral circle by accepting that we are relieving suffering. Doctors also widely withhold and withdraw treatment knowing that this will hasten death. Isn’t the reality that we are already actively engaged in assisted dying?

There’s an error here, too, I think: but it’s an interesting one.   more…

INCB: Wrong on Drugs Policy

7 Mar, 11 | by Iain Brassington

It’s a while since I’ve said anything about drug policy, but a story in the BMJ a couple of weeks ago caught my eye.  It would appear that the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, has issued a report in which it advocates the prohibition of whole classes of substance:

National governments need to adopt generic bans to control entire groups of substances that can be used to make designer drugs, a United Nations report has said.  According to the 2010 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board, designer drugs are being produced faster and in growing numbers than ever before and are easily available over the internet. Designer drugs imitate the effects of ecstasy, amphetamines, and cocaine.

[...]

In the UK the government banned the drug mephedrone last March after several deaths were attributed to it. But the board says that manufacturers get round laws by slightly modifying the structure of drugs, making it difficult for governments to keep pace with changes.

Hamid Ghodse, President of the Vienna based Board, said, “Given the health risks posed by the abuse of designer drugs, we urge governments to adopt national control measures to prevent the manufacture of, trafficking in and abuse of these substances.”

This approach is wrong-headed: banning things does not make the demand go away – it just means that the production evolves. more…

JME blog homepage

Journal of Medical Ethics

Analysis and discussion of developments in the medical ethics field. Visit site

Latest from JME

Latest from JME

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here