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Public Health

Should Doctors Strike?

9 Nov, 15 | by bearp


Should doctors strike?

Is it ethical for doctors to go on strike, potentially putting their patients at risk of getting inadequate treatment?

As the BBC reports, ministers and junior doctors are currently “locked in a dispute.” One possible outcome of this disagreement is a physicians’ strike, which raises a number of tricky ethical questions. But before we get into those questions, it might be helpful to take a look at a quick sketch of what the problem is all about (from the BBC article):

Junior doctors’ leaders are objecting to the prospect of a new contract. The government has described the current arrangements as ‘outdated’ and ‘unfair,’ pointing out they were introduced in the 1990s. Ministers drew up plans to change the contract in 2012, but talks broke down last year. The government has indicated it will impose the new contract next year in England. The BMA has responded by initiating the industrial action process. …

The latest information provided by the government, which is the most detailed so far, includes an 11% rise in basic pay for doctors. But that comes at a price. Other elements of the pay package are being curbed.

The prospect of a strike appears to be firmly on the table: “Doctors can take strike action but only if it affects non-emergency care. The last time this happened was during [a] pensions dispute in 2012, but that was the first time such action had been taken for almost 40 years. Doctors still attend work – so they are ready for urgent and emergency cases.”

The Journal of Medical Ethics has tackled this issue before. Writing for the journal in 2013, John Park and Scott Murray gave an analysis of the 2012 “pensions dispute” just mentioned.

Last year in June, British doctors went on strike for the first time since 1975. Amidst a global economic downturn and with many health systems struggling with reduced finances, around the world the issue of public health workers going on strike is a very real one. Almost all doctors will agree that we should always follow the law, but often the law is unclear or does not cover a particular case. Here we must appeal to ethical discussion.

The General Medical Council, in its key guidance document for practising doctors … claims that ‘Good doctors make the care of their patients their first concern.’ Is this true? And if so, how is this relevant to the issue of striking? One year on since the events, we carefully reflect and argue whether it was right for doctors to pursue strike action, and call for greater discussion of ethical issues such as the recent strikes, particularly among younger members of the profession.

In light of the current turmoil, the Journal of Medical Ethics welcomes submissions on the ethics of physicians striking, including papers which build on, critique, or respond to the work of Park and Murray. Their 2013 paper can be accessed here. As Associate Editor Dominic Wilkinson stated in an interview:

In their submissions, authors should focus on ethical questions and put their discussion in the context of ongoing international debate and existing literature. Possible questions include, for example: what is a fair level of remuneration for public sector healthcare workers, including doctors? Should all doctors be paid equally? Should antisocial hours be rewarded financially? In a financially constrained environment, should doctors’ pay go down in order to protect funding for health care provision?

Papers can be submitted to the Journal of Medical Ethics here. Author instructions are here.

The Journal of Medical Ethics remains the top-ranked journal in bioethics for 2015 according to Google Scholar Metrics, with an impact factor of 1.511 and an h5-index of 28. We look forward to seeing your submissions.

Check out the current issue by clicking here.

Flibanserin and Regulatory Failure

25 Sep, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Adriane Fugh-Berman

On August 18th, 2015, the FDA approved flibanserin (brand name Addyi), a purported aphrodisiac that can drop blood pressure so precipitously that users sometimes pass out and require medical intervention to regain consciousness.  The labelling for flibanserin indicates that it is for:

the treatment of premenopausal women with acquired, generalized hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), as characterized by low sexual desire that causes marked distress or interpersonal difficulty and is NOT due to:

• A co-existing medical or psychiatric condition,

• Problems within the relationship, or

• The effects of a medication or other drug substance.

Focus for a moment on “Low sexual desire that causes marked distress or interpersonal difficulty”.  So a woman upset by a belittling spouse who wants sex more often than she does is eligible for a prescription drug?  It gives a whole new meaning to the term “drugs of abuse.”  Note that even if the putative patient isn’t distressed, she is still eligible for being drugged if her partner is creating interpersonal difficulty.  Here’s a thought – why not sedate him instead?

Not every partner is a jerk, and there are certainly women distressed by loss of libido, but flibanserin isn’t the answer for these women either.  As an aphrodisiac, it’s no great shakes; its predominant mechanism may simply be sedation.  Flibanserin increased “sexually satisfying events” by less than one event a month (the event, by the way, need include neither an orgasm nor a partner).

The labeling of flibanserin reveals the absurdity of this “disease” and its treatment. more…

Eating Disorders and Ramadan

6 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

One of those things that’d simply never occurred to me before was highlighted a few days ago in a story on Buzzfeed: how do you reconcile Ramadan fasting with recovery from an eating disorder?  Indeed: can you reconcile them at all?

“Food is obviously a big part of the holy month,” Sofia says. “Usually after breaking fasts, my family have bigger meals than usual, my mum cooks a lot of extravagant Pakistani dishes for iftar. It’s also a time when my extended family tend to visit more, or we go to the mosque and eat there.

“It’s really difficult to eat in public, especially because I’m still uncomfortable around a lot of foods. And what people usually don’t understand is how seeing all that food can make you feel so pressured. Last Ramadan I remember having to force myself to eat because everyone kept telling me to – and I couldn’t say no to them. When we came back from the mosque, I spent most of the night crying, because I felt I had no control.”


She adds: “I know in my head that I need to stick to the diet and do what my doctor says. But it’s still uncomfortable preparing food while my family aren’t allowed to eat or drink.” At times she “feels guilty while she’s eating”, she says, and there are moments when she’s tempted to go back to fasting again.


How central is the not-eating to Ramadan?  I mean: I know that there’re exemptions for things like medical conditions; but is there a mechanism for people not so much to be exempted, but to make an equivalent sacrifice?  Is fasting valued in itself, or because of what it symbolises?  If the latter, than some sort of substitution would seem possible without that counting as an exception.  If the former, then that wouldn’t be so clear.

Either way, the article suggests that part of the problem here is that there simply isn’t the support.  Inasmuch as that anorexic Muslims will be a minority of a minority, I suppose that that’s not surprising – and it’s compounded by apparent misunderstanding in south Asian communities.  But it’s no less worth noting for that.

Jeremy Hunt and Costs to the Taxpayer

2 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

“Personal responsibility” is a strange phrase: while not as slippery as some, it can mean any number of things, and be put to use in any number of political contexts.  It was the title of the speech that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, gave yesterday.  In that, he spoke of three aspects to the concept.

First up, he talked about the need for personal responsibility for health – that while the NHS tops the leagues in a lot of respects, the UK as a whole is bad when it comes to “lifestyle illnesses”, particularly things derived from obesity and smoking.  I guess that telling us that that’s bad and we could look after ourselves better is something of a bromide; but slightly more jarring was the statement that

[t]hankfully people are starting to take more responsibility. Doctors report dramatic increases in the number of expert patients who Google their conditions and this can be challenging for doctors not used to being second-guessed. But it is to be warmly welcomed: the best person to manage a long-term condition is the person who has that long term condition. The best person to prevent a long term condition developing is not the doctor – it’s you.

This is worth noting for a few reasons: first, it’ll be interesting in the context of what I’m going to say in a couple of paragraphs’ time; but there’s a couple of other things worth noting.  While the final sentence may be fairly unobjectionable at first glance, the penultimate and antepenultimate ones seem much less obvious.  Management of long-term conditions may be best left to the patient in some cases; but in all?  That’s not nearly so obvious.  It’s particularly unlikely when Dr Google is the purported source of information.  Dr Google, after all, may send you to NHS Choices – but it may also send you to What Doctors Don’t Tell You*, or sites that are even more obviously written by and for what we may politely call aluminium milliners.  Sometimes, patients doing a bit of homework is a good thing.  But sometimes, they’ll just end up asking for colloidal silver therapy.  (What could possibly go wrong?)

I’ll come to the second theme in a moment; the third thing he talked about was taking responsibility for our families. more…

Research Ethics: You’re Doing it Wrong!

1 Jun, 15 | by Iain Brassington

With any luck, the marking tsunami will have receded by the end of the week, and so I should be able to get back to blogging a bit more frequently soon.

In the meantime, I’ll fill some space by ripping off something from the “Feedback” page of the latest New Scientist:

The TV industry has […] yet another new mantra: “Not just more pixels, but better pixels”.  The marketeers’ problem is that few people can actually see the extra details in their newest, flashiest sets unless they sit very close or the screen is very, very bright.

A colleague found a demonstration unpleasant, especially when the image flashed, and wondered about the possible risk of this triggering photo-epilepsy or migraines.  One company said, yes, this was being looked into- but no, they could not identify the university doing the work.

Then in the tea break at a tech conference a senior engineer from a UK TV station confided the reason: “We are very aware of the risks and would love to do some real research.  But nobody dares to do it because it would involve tests that deliberately push subjects into epileptic fits, and might very possibly kill them.”

In other words: here’s an intuitively plausible risk associated with product p; we could test whether p is safe; but doing that test itself would be unsafe.  Were this a pharmaceutical trial, one would expect that things would stop there – or, at the very least, that things would move very slowly and carefully indeed.  (Maybe if the drug is highly beneficial, and can be used in highly controlled circumstances, it might be worth it.)

But with TVs… well, it looks like journalists have been invited to the product launch already.  My guess is that if the TV is found to be risky, it’d be quietly withdrawn ex post facto – which seems rather late in the day.

It is a bit strange that trials on a product aren’t being done not so much because of what they might reveal, as because even doing the test might be iffy.  Stranger yet that this is unlikely to make much of a dent in the marketing strategy.  Or, given the requirements of consumer capitalism, not all that strange after all: take your pick.

Sometimes, Big Pharma can seem like a model of probity.

Is Age a Determinant Variable in Forgoing Treatment Decisions at the End of Life?

14 May, 15 | by BMJ

Guest post by Sandra Martins Pereira, Roeline Pasman and Bregje Onwuteaka-Philipsen

Decisions to forgo treatment are embedded in clinical, socio-cultural, philosophical, religious, legal and ethical contexts and beliefs, and they cannot be considered as representing good or poor quality care. Particularly for older people, it is sometimes argued that treatment is aggressive, and that there may be a tendency to continue or start treatments in situations where a shift to a focus on quality of life in light of a limited life expectancy might be preferred. Others argue that an attitude of ageism might prevent older people from receiving treatments and care from which they could benefit, thus resulting in some type of harm and compromising the ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence.

When the need to make a decision about treatment concerns an older person at the end of life, physicians need to reflect on the following questions: In this situation, for this person, what is the best course of action? Is this person capable of assessing the situation and making a decision about it adequately herself? What are the preferences of the person? Who needs to be involved in the decision-making process? What will be the consequences of starting or withholding this treatment?

Our study shows that decisions to forgo treatment preceded death in a substantial proportion of older people in the Netherlands, and more often than in younger groups. Also, it shows that compared to the younger age groups, in the older age group differences were more significant when deciding on withholding than on withdrawing a treatment. This is interesting because it suggests that Dutch physicians, especially those caring for older people, assume a palliative culture and approach, thus meeting the relatively more frequent preference older people have of receiving comfort care and not aggressive treatments aiming to prolong life. Moreover, it seems that decisions to forgo treatments among the ‘oldest old’ (i.e., older people aged 80 and above), when compared to the youngest age group, were made more frequently due to a wish of the patient, indicating consideration and respect for the patient’s wishes.

However, with regard to patient participation in decision making, we also saw that most of the patients, regardless of their age, did not discuss the forgoing treatment decision with the attending physician. As our findings indicate, this occurred mostly because the patient was not able to assess the situation and make a decision about it in an adequate manner. This result highlights the need to further implement strategies aiming at implementing advance care planning in practice and in an earlier stage of the disease trajectory.

Finally, based on our study, we cannot assume that any age-related differences in forgoing treatment decisions occur due to an attitude of ageism. On the contrary, our study suggests that care for older people in the Netherlands seems to be focused on providing palliative care, also suggesting a better acceptance that these patients are nearing death. This is particularly relevant for the discussion about the meaning of dying well in older ages, having an impact on older people’s experiences and end-of-life care.

Read the full paper here.

Incentives, Penalties, and Vaccination.

13 Apr, 15 | by Iain Brassington

This popped up on my FB feed yesterday: a proposal from the Australian government that certain child welfare payments should be withheld from parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids based on “conscientious objection”.

Parents who do not vaccinate their children will lose welfare payments of up to $2100 per child under a federal government policy set to be announced before the May budget.

Under changes that could save more than $50 million a year, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison is preparing to scrap a “conscientious objection” provision which allows anti-vaccination parents to still claim welfare benefits including childcare assistance and Family Tax Benefit A.

Fairfax Media understands the Family Tax Benefit A is worth up to $2100 per child.

What to make of the idea?

Well, I think that certain things can be taken more or less as read.  The first is that vaccination is a good thing, and is quite possibly a prima facie duty.  The second is that governments may, and perhaps must, encourage vaccination.  So it looks as though an argument in defence of the idea could be valid.  Measures to increase levels of vaccination are desirable; this is a measure that (if it works) would increase levels of vaccination; therefore this is desirable.  We’d have to do a bit of work to see whether the argument actually does work – formal validity won’t guarantee that – but in the meantime, the policy may be justified on the basis that it’s reasonable to believe that it would work.

But that is not, of course, the whole story.  Effectiveness is a necessary condition for a policy being justified, but it ain’t sufficient.  It’s likely that there’s more to say. more…

Does Religion Deserve a Place in Secular Medicine?

26 Feb, 15 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp

The latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics is out, and in it, Professor Nigel Biggar—an Oxford theologian—argues that “religion” should have a place in secular medicine (click here for a link to the article).

Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious. After all, different religions require different things, and sometimes they come to opposite conclusions. So whose religion, exactly, does Professor Biggar have in mind, and what kind of “place” is he trying to make a case for?


Ebola in the US: Privacy, public interest and the ethics of media reporting

3 Oct, 14 | by David Hunter

The first confirmed case of ebola has been found in the US, in Texas – unsurprisingly someone who had recently been to Africa. This has prompted an outbreak… of unethical media reporting about the case, with several breaches of privacy which seem unlikely to be in the public interest. Specifically the media has disclosed the victim’s full name, then to add insult to injury they published both his address and then a map of where he lives.

The media frenzy around this case is as unwarranted as it is unsurprising – scarily reminiscient of the painfully telling Onion piece – which claimed just 50 more white people needed to die of Ebola before a vaccine would be developed…

But even if we accept that the public is interested in the case (which no doubt they are) and that this interest warrants reporting on it does that give the media the right to release this person’s personal details and movements?

The main argument that can be offered for breaching typical standards of confidentiality is that the breach is in the public’s interest – this is the defense typically usually used in whistle blowing cases and in cases where medical professionals break confidentiality to prevent harm to others.

So isn’t this justification enough? Aren’t all Americans now at risk of ebola, amd hence have a right to know about who has it and where it is so they can choose to minimise their own risk?

It is worth noting that whilst Ebola is to be frank a terrifying disease it is relatively easily containable by the use of routine public health measures such as surveilance, isolation, contact tracing and modern hygiene standards and practices as it is spread through fairly obvious contact with bodily fluids, rather than airborne. And these fluids are only generated once someone is obviously symptomatic. As such there is little chance of a significant outbreak in countries like America or Australia because the number of contacts likely to be exposed to bodily fluids are usually minimal.

So this information is unlikely to help anyone protect themselves from being exposed to ebola – those who were already exposed (if any) have been exposed and are being contacted, and no one will now be exposed to this particular victim, so having their details in the public domain does no good, and has a potential to do harm in three ways:

1. It can reinforce false beliefs – “why would they tell us this if we weren’t at a significantly increased risk?”

2. It creates the potential for witch hunting – where the victim is blamed and potentially harmed – “civic-minded” citizens might take it upon themselves to “minimise” the risk of infection by burning down the apartment building he lives in for example.

3. It may perversely discourage other exposed travellers from seeking medical treatment and attention – it is worth noting that the victim took himself to hospital to seek treatment. If there is considerable public outcry, stigmatisation, distaste and displeasure the next victim may feel their details will be exposed in a similar fashion and avoid medical attention with predictably disasterous effects both for them, and for those potentially exposed to them.

Could spreading this information be helpful for contact tracing? Contact tracing is a public health practice where all those who might have been exposed are identified and contacted – both to see if they have symptoms and in some cases to isolate them until they are cleared. Reporting these details might enable a few people who haven’t been identified as being in contact to self identify, but practices of contact tracing are well established and this is a relatively easy case since his movements are well known and the victim has been able to communicate with public health officials about those he has been in contact with, so it is likely to be of minimal benefit, if anything it might well create more false positives than anything else – with worried people who think they were exposed using up valuable time and resources.

In a deeply misleadingly titled piece: “With Ebola, the public’s right to know trumps patient privacy” Art Caplan an American bioethicist argues that rebuilding and maintaining trust requires the public be given some normally confidential information. He argues there is a public interest in knowing the process of how this case was handled, and his movements so that the public can be reassured about the system and that they were not exposed. It is fair to note that mistakes were made in this case – he then went to hospital and was discharged despite having disclosed that he had recently travelled from Africa. However there is as Art acknowledges a significant difference between releasing this information, and the victims personal private details. It is hard to see how releasing that information really would provide public reassurance? I’d suggest it doesn’t really, instead it feeds fear and distrust which are the greatest killers in epidemics.

Highly dangerous infectious diseases create unique ethical challenges because by their very nature those who suffer them are as Battin et al put it “both victims and vectors of disease“. But whether someone is a victim or a vector of a disease, we ought to remember that they are still a person and as such deserve to have their private information protected, especially if disclosure is unlikely to benefit and may well harm the public’s interests, no matter how interested they are in knowing it.

Are FIGO’s Regulations Risking the Lives of Pregnant Women?

10 Jul, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by Douwe Verkuyl

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) Committee for the Ethical Aspects of Human Reproduction and Women’s Health believes that there is never an indication for a tubal occlusion (TO) to be performed at the time of caesarean section or following a vaginal delivery in cases where this sterilisation has not been discussed with the woman in an earlier phase of her pregnancy.  This applies even if there is a uterus rupture.

But what if a mother of 5 children, living in rural Africa near a Catholic clinic, unexpectedly needs referral to a government hospital because of arrested labour, and faces a journey of at least 4 hours over a dirt road?  Does the Committee’s recommendation against belated TO counselling still apply if referring establishments have deliberately ignored its advice to counsel pregnant women early in pregnancy about the option of a concurrent sterilisation in the event that a caesarean section is needed?  Catholic institutions – which are often the only health facility for miles around – not only ignore this advice, but also fail to assist a woman with “sinful” modern contraception after she has returned with a scarred uterus.  In many Western, developed countries, Catholic contraception doctrines are mostly inconvenient, guilt-provoking and expensive.  In rural Africa, Latin America and the Philippines, they often kill.

Imagine a 37-year-old woman in labour in a well-equipped and staffed Doctors Without Borders (DWB) emergency hospital which happened to be located near her home.  She has previously given birth, with some difficulty, six times at home, and now there is a full civil war.  The doctors detect foetal distress.  They think there might be a 10%-30% chance her child will be damaged or die before it is born.  On the other hand, with the uncertain political situation – consider that on 17 June a DWB hospital was bombed in Sudan – and poor infrastructure, it might be the case that her chance of dying from a uterine scar during a subsequent labour is around 30%, and the probability that she has continuous access to reliable reversible contraception for the next 13 years is zero.  If she would choose to have a TO with a caesarean section that would solve the quandary.  Is it really unethical to ask her, or unethical not to give her that choice?

Read the full paper in the latest edition of the JME here.

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