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The NHS

Oh, and while we’re talking about media hype…

1 Apr, 14 | by Iain Brassington

… there’s this, from last week’s Independent:

Thousands of unborn foetuses incinerated to heat UK hospitals

The bodies of more than 15,000 unborn foetuses have been incinerated in the UK, an investigation has found, with some treated as “clinical waste” and others burned to heat hospitals.

The practice was carried out by 27 NHS trusts, with at least 15,500 bodies burned over the last two years alone.

Ten of those trusts admitted to burning more than 1,000 sets of remains along with other hospital rubbish, while two said they were incinerated in “waste-to-energy” furnaces that generate energy used to power and heat hospitals.

Gasp!  One kind of human tissue is disposed of in the same way as other kinds of human tissue!

From the tone of the reporting, one would only be mildly surprised to find people employed to encourage abortions in order that hospitals can save money on fuel.

Except that that’s nonsense.  If clinical waste is incinerated in waste-to-heat plants, it doesn’t follow that it’s being incinerated to provide heating; rather, it’s that the heat from the incinerator is captured and put to use, rather than being wasted.  For sure, the physics is the same; but the emphasis makes a heck of a difference.  (And, as PZ points out, for abortus* to be an effective fuel would require them to be “the most energy-dense substance in the world”.)  So what we actually have is a situation in which an abortus is incinerated.

And the problem with that is…?

Um…

Well, I’m sure there must be one, because health minister Dan Poulter is reported as describing the practice as “totally unacceptable”, and Poulter is an honourable man.

Actually, there is a few things that might strike us as questionable – though as we’ll see, the fact that something prompts a question doesn’t really tell us much, since some questions can be answered easily.   more…

Welcome to Britain.

30 Dec, 13 | by Iain Brassington

It having been a long time since my last post, and this being the season of good-will, I wasn’t going to comment on the government’s new policy of charging migrants for A&E services.  Noone needs that kind of spleen on a dreich Monday; besides: I’ve got a PhD thesis that needs assessing, and a bathroom floor that I’ve been meaning to re-lay all year – all manner of better uses of my time.

Still, there’s a couple of things that merit comment.  First, there’s this, from the Government’s press-release:

We know that some people are abusing the system by coming into the country early enough to have one or more antenatal appointments before giving birth on the NHS – without the intention to pay.

I love a good vague statistic.  “Some” people.  There’s nothing offered about how many that amounts to.  Presumably, it’s more than one, but fewer than everyone.  Beyond that, though… well…  The phrase “some” just isn’t very useful when it comes to making judgements about anything – as waitresses (and diners) can attest.  But still, I’m willing to concede that “some” indicates a positive integer, and that there is therefore some measurable impact on expenditure arising from such people.  This doesn’t tell us whether it’s expenditure at a level that should bother us.  The DoH press release offers some illumination on this point: more…

Conference: Compassion Fatigue: Changing Culture in the NHS

18 Apr, 13 | by Iain Brassington

26-28 June, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham

(via Andrew Edgar)

Can the language of compassion capture the moral problems confronted by the NHS, or might it obfuscate and distract us from more subtle and demanding issues?

Through a series of plenary addresses, workshops, panels and shared opportunities for discussion, “Compassion Fatigue” will provide an opportunity to explore the language of compassion, and the impact that it has on the practice of health care provision.

More details below the fold. 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?

Modesty, Conscience, and What it Takes to be a Doctor (with a bit of Comedy)

19 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Two apparently unrelated new and new-ish papers in the JME have caught my eye over the last few days.  One of them is this one: Salilah Saidun’s “Photographing Human Subjects in Biomedical Disciplines: An Islamic Perspective”.  We’ll come to the other in a little while.

There’s a couple of puzzling things about the paper.  One is that I’m not sure what the tone is supposed to be.

It could be a descriptive piece, along the lines of “Look, here’s what Muslims might think about medical photography, and if you’re going to take or use medical photographs, you might want to keep it in mind.”  Of course, it’s by no means certain that all Muslims think alike, or that if (mirabile dictu) they do, it has anything much to do with Islam – but we’ll put that to one side.  Similarly, the fact that some people do think this won’t tell us much about what practical implications there ought to be, beyond keeping it in mind.  It won’t tell us that we ought to adhere to those opinions.  Islamic rules might provide a reason to behave in a certain way; but there might be other reasons to behave in a certain other way – and they might sometimes be more compelling.  I’ll put that to one side, too, though.  As a descriptive paper, it might very well be the sort of thing that’s useful on the wards.

But a descriptive reading won’t explain the passages that appear to have a more normative dimension: more…

What can we Learn from “The Exorcist”?

15 Nov, 11 | by Iain Brassington

When John Sentamu stood up in the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago and spoke about the need for the NHS to concern itself with “spiritual” needs – and illustrated his claim with an anecdote about something resembling an exorcism – the response from a lot of the blogosphere was, at its friendliest, one of pointing and laughing.  It’s very easy to see why.  Not only is it slightly embarrassing that in the UK you can be made a Member of Parliament for being good at believing in the right kind of god in the right kind of way, but the NHS – and healthcare generally – is successful when and because its clinical procedures are based on science and reason, not spooky ghosty stuff.  (In fact, I struggle to see what Sentamu actually meant.  He was empatic that the spiritual is not the same as the psychological, but this just prompts a question: what, then, is it – if anything?  If you remove the psychological from the spiritual, does anything remain?  And if it does, how do we know?)

Anyway: I was prepared to go along with the pointing and laughing.  But then, on Saturday, I saw a DVD of The Exorcist for a couple of quid and impulse bought it; and, that evening, I turned off the lights and watched it.*  You’ll have to bear with me on this, but it made me wonder if there might be something interesting about the idea of “spiritual” care on the NHS.  Not that I believe for a moment that there’s such a thing as demonic possession, or such a thing as a soul or spirit.  Of course there isn’t.  But it doesn’t follow from that that such terms have no place in respect of some forms of care. more…

C-Sections on Demand? Not Quite…

31 Oct, 11 | by Iain Brassington

Stephen Latham has picked up a lead about NICE guidelines on the provision of caesarian sections:

An update of a new guidance document being developed by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellenct (“NICE”) would permit caesarian section on maternal request, even when there are no medical indications for the procedure. [...] The new guidelines make me worry that the official availability of c-section on maternal request in the UK will lead to some non-medically-indicated c-sections being performed for reasons other than “maternal request,” like physician scheduling convenience. But it may work differently in the NHS; and anyway, the NICE guidelines include a number of steps to be taken before acquiescing in mom’s request for CS, like counseling on fear of childbirth, and proper discussion of the comparative risks of CS and vaginal birth.

Even allowing that this is accurate, I don’t quite see why Latham is worried about a CS being scheduled for reasons other than maternal request – it’s a heck of a leap from “maternally requested” to “requested by someone else”.  What worries I do have are versions of more general worries about providing any medical intervention at all on demand; as a rule of thumb, I think it’d be hard to justify providing any procedure just because it had been requested.  On the other hand, I can well imagine that there’re lots of situations in which a CS might be a perfectly reasonable thing to request, and in which acceding to such a request is just as reasonable.

A lot still hinges on whether Latham is accurate, though.  As far as I can tell, he isn’t quite right.   more…

Reiki Research: Not Quite the Maddest thing on the Net.

18 Aug, 11 | by Iain Brassington

Right now, physicists are pondering the fallout from the collision of high-energy particles.  (Probably.)  And I, for my part, am pondering the fallout from the collision of high-energy nonsense.

Having had this brought to my attention, I’m led fairly quickly to this, then this, and, finally, this Mail on Sunday piece.  All the links refer to a story in which a hospital is apparently using £200k or so of Lottery money to fund research into spiritual healing based on Reiki.  I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that the research finds that spiritual “healing” is utterly ineffective, except when it means people don’t avail themselves of real medicine – in which case, it’s very effective and its effects are undesirable.  Spiritual healing is bunk; one could reasonably think that a trial into it is a waste of money.  We oughtn’t to waste money, so, modus ponens, we oughtn’t really to be doing this kind of research.

In fact, there’re likely to be big problems with spiritual healing research of any sort, simply because participants may feel that there’s less need to continue using established treatments, and thereby end up worse off.  And when others continue with conventional treatments, it’s going to be hard to tell which of their outcomes was attributable to which – so the research’ll likely tell us nothing.  Hence I wonder whether the research will yield anything publishable: if not, then the whole thing will have been in vain, and there’s something problematic about enrolling people in trials that stand a chance of being, from a publication point of view, barren.

I’m not actually going to go down that route here, though. more…

Medicine and the Military Covenant

17 May, 11 | by Iain Brassington

There’s been a lot in the news over the last couple of days about the Military Covenant, and how there’s a plant to give it a legal footing as part of the Armed Forces Bill.  Some of the reportage over the weekend suggested that there would be explicit prioritisation for members and ex-members of the forces in respect of healthcare.  In the document that was published yesterday (link to 1.4M .pdf file), that commitment seems to be moderated – which is a good thing (for reasons that are basically the same as I outlined in an earlier post).

But healthcare does get special mention in the document; and, though it’s too long a mention to do proper justice here, it is worth quickly noting the highlights – or, rather, lowlights.  It’s the sort of thing that seems designed to please the tabloid press, but which will, in practice, please noone – not people like me, who think that special pleading for the military is moral hokum, nor people who think that special provision ought to be made but won’t find it here. more…

NHS Treatment and Failed Asylum-Seekers

10 Jan, 11 | by Iain Brassington

A medical student from Newcastle writes:

I am currently writing an ethics assignment relating to a paediatric placement I undertook earlier this academic year.  During the placement I was involved in the care of 11-month old twins from Khartoum, Sudan, whose parents had brought them into hospital because they were suffering from recurrent generalised tonic-clonic (grand mal) siezures.  As part of their treatment, they were administered with intravenous antiepileptic medications, as well as maintenance fluids.  The day after their admission, however, the family were informed that their application for leave to remain in the UK had failed, and that they were to return to the Sudan with immediate effect.

I would like to use this scenario to highlight the ethical, legal and professional issues raised by the medical treatment of failed asylum seekers on the NHS.  The reason I am contacting you is to ask whether, as an expert in medical ethics, you are aware of any textbooks or published documents which may offer some guidance on this issue?  Given the highly specific nature of the subject, I know the best I can hope for is a chapter in an ethics textbook, but the hospital and University libraries I have visited have not yielded any results; furthermore, I am afraid the internet simply does not seem to contain many credible sources of information.

This looks like a really interesting – and important – study; but I have to admit that the best I could do was to recommend a trawl of the journals.

Does anyone out there have any more specific suggestions?  It’d be much appreciated if you’d leave them in the comments.

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