DNA Donors Must Demand Stronger Privacy Protection

By Mason Marks and Tiffany Li

An earlier version of this article was published in STAT.

The National Institutes of Health wants your DNA, and the DNA of one million other Americans, for an ambitious project called All of Us. Its goal — to “uncover paths toward delivering precision medicine” — is a good one. But until it can safeguard participants’ sensitive genetic information, you should decline the invitation to join unless you fully understand and accept the risks.

DNA databases like All of Us could provide valuable medical breakthroughs such as identifying new disease risk factors and potential drug targets. But these benefits could come with a high price: increased risk to individuals’ genetic data privacy, something that current U.S. laws do not adequately protect. Read More

Facebook Should ‘First Do No Harm’ When Collecting Health Data

By Mason Marks

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it was reported that Facebook planned to partner with medical organizations to obtain health records on thousands of users. The plans were put on hold when news of the scandal broke. But Facebook doesn’t need medical records to derive health data from its users. It can use artificial intelligence tools, such as machine learning, to infer sensitive medical information from its users’ behavior. I call this process mining for emergent medical data (EMD), and companies use it to sort consumers into health-related categories and serve them targeted advertisements. I will explain how mining for EMD is analogous to the process of medical diagnosis performed by physicians, and companies that engage in this activity may be practicing medicine without a license.

Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about his company’s data collection practices. Many lawmakers that questioned him understood that Facebook collects consumer data and uses it to drive targeted ads. However, few Members of Congress seemed to understand that the value of data often lies not in the information itself, but in the inferences that can be drawn from it. There are numerous examples that illustrate how health information is inferred from the behavior of social media users: Last year Facebook announced its reliance on artificial intelligence to predict which users are at high risk for suicide; a leaked document revealed that Facebook identified teens feeling “anxious” and “hopeless;” and data scientists used Facebook messages and “likes” to predict whether users had substance use disorders. In 2016, researchers analyzed Instagram posts to predict whether users were depressed. In each of these examples, user data was analyzed to sort people into health-related categories.

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Webinar, 6/28: Procedural Aspects of Compulsory Licensing under TRIPS

Join us at yet another webinar with J. Wested at the University of Copenhagen. This time we will debate procedural issues in compulsory licensing with H. Grosse Ruse-Kahn (University of Cambridge) & M. Desai (Eli Lilly). Further information on our webinar series is available at here, here, and below:

Procedural Aspects of Compulsory Licensing under Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)

Wednesday 28. June 2017
4-6 p.m (CEST)
Sign-up & questions: Jakob.blak.wested@jur.ku.dk

This webinar on “TRIPS and the life sciences” will approach the question of compulsory licensing by looking at the technical and procedural requirements applied by courts when evaluating a petition for a compulsory license.  

The balancing of the instrumental application of patent rights as a stimulator of innovation and the public interest in having access to these innovations form a controversial trajectory of discourse, which is as old as patent law. Compulsory licenses are one of the means that have been applied throughout the history of patent law, to condition this complex intersection of interests. The TRIPS agreement is no exception and art 31 contains the provision for member states to grant CL. In 2013, the Indian authorities granted a compulsory license to NATCO Pharmaceuticals for Bayers patented pharmaceutical product Carboxy Substituted Diphenyl Ureas, useful for the treatment of liver and kidney cancer. This decision raised several issues regarding the procedures and requirements to be met in order to grant a compulsory license. Furthermore, in January 2017 an amendment to TRIPS agreement entered into force allowing compulsory licensors to export their generic pharmaceuticals to least developed countries, further recalibrating the intersection of the monopoly power of the patent and public interest. Read More

Conflict of Interests Disclosures Come to PubMed

By Christopher Robertson

Scholars and policymakers have long been concerned that the biomedical science literature — and thus the practice of medicine — is biased by the companies who fund research on their own products.  Prior research has shown that industry-funded studies tend to produce results favorable to their company sponsors.  One solution is disclosure of industry funding, so that physicians and other consumers of the biomedical literature can weigh scientific findings accordingly.

My prior work with Aaron Kesselheim, Susannah Rose, and others has found that adding such disclosures to biomedical abstracts could make a big difference — physicians understand them and will rely upon them.  Nonetheless, most journals bury the disclosures at the end of articles, which are often hidden behind paywalls and not nearly as salient as the methods and findings displayed in the abstract.  For the Institutional Corruption Lab of the Edmond J. Safra Center, I worked with a team of hackers to create a browser extension that proves the feasibility of adding those disclosures into PubMed, a Federal government database of the scientific literature.

Thankfully, that browser extension is becoming obsolete, as the National Library of Medicine (part of the NIH) has begun implementing such disclosures themselves, right in PubMed.   A search reveals that nearly 80,000 abstracts now have such tags.  While a lot in absolute terms, it is a small minority of the 17 million abstracts covered by PubMed.  Commentators have suggested that as much as 70% of the funding for clinical trials comes from industry, so we should expect millions of abstracts to have such disclosures.

Thus we are still a long way from comprehensive and effective disclosure.  There are two problems. Read More

Genetic counselors, genetic interpreters, and conflicting interests

By Katie Stoll, Amanda Mackison, Megan Allyse, and Marsha Michie

The booming genetic testing industry has created many new job opportunities for genetic counselors. Within commercial laboratories, genetic counselors work in sales and marketing, variant interpretation, as “medical science liaisons” to clinicians, and providing direct patient care. Although the communication skills and genetics expertise of the genetic counselor prepare them well for these roles, they also raise concerns about conflicts of interest (COI).

Why are genetic counselors leaving clinics and hospitals for industry jobs? Alongside greater job flexibility and taking on new challenges, a big reason is better pay. Hospitals and clinics have difficulty competing with the higher salaries at commercial labs because of continuing challenges in insurance reimbursement. Apart from limited preventive care covered under the Affordable Care Act, genetic counseling is inconsistently covered by private payers. Medicaid reimbursement for genetic counseling is state-dependent, and Medicare does not recognize genetic counselors as reimbursable health care providers at all.

Genetic counselors’ primary objective has historically been to help patients navigate difficult medical genetic information and decisions, supporting their autonomy.  But as laboratory employees, they must also navigate their employer’s financial interests, including increasing the uptake of genetic testing. In this changing landscape, can the profession of genetic counseling maintain the bioethical principles of beneficence, informed consent, and respect for autonomy that have been its foundation and ethos? Read More

Maybe For-Profit Hospitals Aren’t So Bad

By Shailin Thomas

For-profit hospitals have taken their fair share of flack over the years. Much maligned by many in the medical community, they are seen as money-hungry corporate machines that pervert the medical profession by putting the bottom line before patient care. This skepticism of profit-driven hospitals feels right. Medicine has long been the purview of charitable organizations and religious institutions. It’s supposed to be a calling — a public service to which practitioners are drawn — not a check to cash at the bank.

As for-profit hospitals proliferated, there was research done suggesting they had quality and cost issues stemming from their profit motives. For-profit hospitals had higher mortality rates, employed fewer trained professionals per bed, and were more expensive than their non-profit and government counterparts. Researchers speculated that this was the result of duties owned to shareholders by corporate leaders or compensation incentives for executives based on profitability rather than quality of care. These studies seemed to confirm what many thought they already knew: medicine and money don’t mix well.

More recent studies, however, suggest that for-profit hospitals may have turned over a new leaf. Since 2010, for-profit hospitals have out-performed non-profits in the “Top Performer” evaluation carried out by The Joint Commission — an organization that accredits hospitals in the US — with a higher percentage of for-profit hospitals qualifying for the honor than non-profits. A study published in JAMA from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that hospitals that converted from non-profit to for-profit improved their financial position by increasing their total margins and experienced no change in mortality rates.

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NEW REPORT: Protecting and Promoting the Health of NFL Players – Legal and Ethical Analysis and Recommendations

fphs_lawethics_coverThe Football Players Health Study at Harvard University today released a set of legal and ethical recommendations to address a series of structural factors that affect NFL player health. The Football Players Health Study is a research initiative composed of several ongoing studies examining the health and wellbeing of NFL players.

The newly released report, nearly 500 pages long, is based on analysis performed over two years by researchers from the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School, and is unprecedented both in scope and focus. (Read the executive summary).

This is the first comprehensive analysis of the legal and ethical obligations of various stakeholders that influence the health of NFL players. While clinical interventions are essential, players’ health is also affected by the environment in which players work.

The report reviews and evaluates the roles of 20 relevant stakeholders, including the NFL, NFL Players Association (NFLPA), players, and Club (team) doctors.  In total, the report makes 76 recommendations.

Highlights of the key proposals are summarized below: Read More

Confidentiality or Public Disclosure: Trump’s Gastroenterologist and an Ethical Dilemma

By Brad Segal

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency,” proclaimed Dr. Harold Bornstein. The gastroenterologist’s letter, released on the candidate’s website nine months ago, stumbles from the outset with a typo (“To Whom My Concern,”), then steamrolls over the most basic descriptions of health (medical school teaches us that vital signs are, well, vital), omits information pertinent to the public discourse (why does it fail to mention the medical reason exempting Trump from the Vietnam draft?), and strangely emphases non-medicalized traits (“His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary”). Most experts agree that this medical record, if we can even call it that, is at best hyperbole. It draws grandiose conclusions without medical justification. Even Dr. Bornstein conceded, “In the rush, I think some of those words didn’t come out exactly the way they were meant.”

Just this morning the Trump campaign released a second letter from Dr. Bornstein. But this time the doctor rather humbly concludes, “In summary, Mr. Trump is in excellent physical health.”  These letters from Dr. Bornstein’s letter demonstrate a modern-day moral dilemma in providing care for a party nominee. At conflict is the physician’s professional duty to respect patient confidentiality, and his or her obligations to care for society more broadly.

First, patient-doctor confidentiality is not merely a byproduct of the law—it is a moral obligation grounded in the core tenants of the medical profession. To put it simply, if a patient comes to expect that his doctor will tell the entire community about the patient’s most embarrassing bodily defects, the patient may understandably deny his worsening symptoms of poor health at the next office visit. In the long run, erosion of trust in the medical system could endanger the public’s health–everyone is thus better off when doctors uniformly respect patient privacy. It is important to point out, however, that an informed and competent person can voluntarily waive one’s right to patient-doctor confidentiality, such as when a patient gives a physician the permission to provide updates to family members. Or when then-candidate John McCain instructed his physicians all 1,100 pages in his medical records.

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Hospitals Should Think Before Performing Searches for Law Enforcement

By Shailin Thomas

In 2012, a Jane Doe suspected of transporting drugs was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents without a warrant, and brought to University Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. Medical Center personnel — under the direction of the law enforcement agents — performed an X-ray, CT scan, and cavity search before determining that the woman was not in fact carrying any controlled substances. A few months after suffering this traumatic — and possibly illegal — event, the woman received a $5400 bill from the Medical Center for the services rendered as part of the search.

While the woman was compensated to some extent — she settled lawsuits with University Medical Center and the CBP to the tune of $1.1 million and $475,000, respectively — her story, and stories like hers, raise important questions about the ways in which hospitals should (or shouldn’t) work with law enforcement to perform invasive searches.

It’s understandable why hospitals and medical professionals are inclined to cooperate with law enforcement requests for invasive procedures and cavity searches — law-abiding citizens often don’t want to obstruct law enforcement agents from doing their jobs. But in the course of bringing suit against University Medical Center, Edgar Saldivar of the ACLU of Texas noted that the hospital and many of its personnel didn’t know where the obligation to assist the CBP stopped. Many medical professional don’t know that — according to the CBP’s own Personal Search Handbook — they are under absolutely no obligation to comply with requests by law enforcement to perform cavity searches with or without a warrant.

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Sex Markers in Official Documentation – Between Biology and Self-Identification

A recent civil action filed by LAMBDA Legal highlights a debate ongoing for the past several years on the issue of “sex-markers” in official documentation to the U.S courts. In different instances, plaintiffs and interest groups have sought to challenge the state’s sex-binary classification system when issuing official identification documents such as passports, birth certificates, driver’s licenses and more. Litigation and advocacy around sex-markers in official documentation may be roughly distinguished between groups advocating for easier access to the existing Male /Female categories (“M/F”), mostly by and for the trans community, and to groups asking to break the M/F distinction altogether in favor of an unspecified category: ”X”/”MF”/Unknown/Unspecified. This group is not seeking better access to the existing M/F categories, but is rather pursuing the goal of creating an all-inclusive new category for those who do not identify as males or females, sometimes also referred to as “third sex” or “third gender”.

These challenges were sometimes fruitful in generating administrative adjustments. For example, in 2011 it became possible to mark “X” instead of M/F on passports in Australia. In 2013 Germany approved a change in legislation that allows leaving the “sex” checkbox in birth certificates empty. These developments were presented very positively in the media with headlines like: “Germany got it right by offering a third gender option on birth certificates” in the Guardian, or: “Germany allows ‘indeterminate’ gender at birth” in the BBC, that portrayed them as victories for intersex and LGBT activists. Although the wish to open up sex categories in official documentation seems to be in line with progressive politics, some Intersex advocacy organizations have had misgivings about this line of advocacy. One argument is that being an Intersex or a Trans person does not necessarily dictate a non-specified gender identity and so conjoining intersexuality and transgenderism with non-specified gender identity is incorrect to say the least.

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