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Artificial Intelligence for Suicide Prediction

Suicide is a global problem that causes 800,000 deaths per year worldwide. In the United States, suicide rates rose by 25 percent in the past two decades, and suicide now kills 45,000 Americans each year, which is more than auto accidents or homicides.

Traditional methods of predicting suicide, such as questionnaires administered by doctors, are notoriously inaccurate. Hoping to save lives by predicting suicide more accurately, hospitals, governments, and internet companies are developing artificial intelligence (AI) based prediction tools. This essay analyzes the risks these systems pose to safety, privacy, and autonomy, which have been under-explored.

Two parallel tracks of AI-based suicide prediction have emerged.

The first, which I call “medical suicide prediction,” uses AI to analyze patient records. Medical suicide prediction is not yet widely used, aside from one program at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Because medical suicide prediction occurs within the healthcare context, it is subject to federal laws, such as HIPAA, which protects the privacy and security of patient information, and the Federal Common Rule, which protects human research subjects.

My focus here is on the second track of AI-based suicide prediction, which I call “social suicide prediction.” Though essentially unregulated, social suicide prediction uses behavioral data mined from consumers’ digital interactions. The companies involved, which include large internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, are not generally subject to HIPAA’s privacy regulations, principles of medical ethics, or rules governing research on human subjects.

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elderly person's hand clasped in young person's hands

How Would You Like to be Treated if You Had Dementia?

The New Yorker just published an article full of ethical questions about the best health care treatment for dementia patients. It should make you think about which life you would choose. Larissa MacFarquhar’s piece is titled “The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care.” Its subtitle suggests a sad story, noting “Many facilities are using nostalgic environments as a means of soothing the misery, panic, and rage their residents experience.” The article tells numerous powerful stories of dementia patients’ good and bad experiences.

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Dementia, Disability, and Advance Medical Directives

By Rebecca Dresser

pencil drawing of a brain Anyone fortunate enough to live beyond middle age faces a risk of developing dementia. Dementia is a widely feared disability. People often say they wouldn’t want to live if they developed the condition.  

Experts in law and ethics praise advance directives, or instructions to follow on behalf of patients, as a tool giving people control over the life-sustaining medical care they later receive as mentally impaired dementia patients. Some advance directive supporters also want the law to recognize advance requests to withhold ordinary food and water in the late stages of dementia. And some argue that the U.S. should follow the Netherlands in allowing doctors to give lethal drugs to people who made advance directives asking for assisted death if dementia makes them unable to live at home or to recognize their loved ones.  

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From bioethics to medical anthropology to humanities and back: A year in review

I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on the past year, where I will be in the future, and how the student fellowship has impacted me. I still hope to contribute to the Bill of Health blog going forward, but as my last official post as a Petrie-Flom Student Fellow, I would be remiss if I did not express my sincere gratitude to everyone at the Petrie-Flom Center, the faculty and staff, the other student fellows, and especially my mentors: Professors I. Glenn Cohen, Carmel Shachar, and Intisar A. Rabb.

My own project took a few different turns this year. My original proposal was to explore the ways in which bioethics and biomedical issues will play a significant role in reviving the dialectic between secular scholars and religious authority. Ayman Shabana rightly argues that respect for Islamic religious norms is essential for the legitimacy of bioethical standards in the Muslim context, wherein he attributes the legitimating power of these norms—as well as their religious and spiritual underpinnings—to their moral, legal, and communal dimensions. Building off of Shabana’s work, my initial argument held that the relationship between the secular and religious worlds is important because the discourse between the two, although often presumed to be dichotomous, is not necessarily antithetical nor is it impassable. This led me back to the arguments of the venerable philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor whereby, in critiquing the concept of secularism itself along with its historical contexts, furthered my argument and helped me to clarify the significant role that religion plays vis-à-vis categorical issues such as fundamental beliefs and metaphysics. I still maintain this, and it is something I continue to work on, although I decided to take my project in another direction.

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Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

By Yusuf Lenfest

Professor Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, rightly identifies depression as a particularly crippling disease insofar as it affects one’s very response mechanisms and modes of coping, namely, experiences of gratitude, joy, pleasure—at bottom, some of the key emotions of resistance and healing. In discussing depression, he provides an overview of the biological and chemical elements, touching on the role of neurotransmitters (epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin) in depression, and a summary of the psychological elements (and their relation to the biological); as such, his description focuses primarily on physical and biological explanations. However, to examine depression or any psychological illness in purely physical and biological terms misses a crucial element, namely: human culture, lived experience, and the different modes or methods of social thought. Culture plays a primary role in defining many mental disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis, and even the symptoms, intensities, or typologies of depression, according to Arthur Kleinman in his seminal Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine.

Despite these findings, Western biomedicine by and large continues to analyze mental health in clinical and biological terms. This is not insignificant given the statistics:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.- 43.8 million or 18.5% – experiences mental illness in a given year.
  •  Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
  • Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9% received mental health services in the past year.
  • Just over half (50.6%) of children aged 8-15 received mental health services in the previous year. (National Alliance on Mental Health)

Current trends in medicine suggest that the medical community broadly speaking is ill-equipped to adequately tackle this rising trend, especially with regard to the treatment of diverse patients from various cultures, religions, and social circumstances. To best address the problem, the medical community – both on the level of policy and practice -ought to take steps to understand and treat mental illness more holistically.

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Simulated Side Effects: FDA Uses Novel Computer Model to Guide Kratom Policy

By Mason Marks

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement on Tuesday about the controversial plant Mitragyna speciosa, which is also known as kratom. According to Gottlieb, kratom poses deadly health risks. His conclusion is partly based on a computer model that was announced in his recent statement. The use of simulations to inform drug policy is a new development with implications that extend beyond the regulation of kratom. We currently live in the Digital Age, a period in which most information is in digital form. However, the Digital Age is rapidly evolving into an Age of Algorithms in which computer software increasingly assumes the roles of human decision makers. The FDA’s use of computer simulations to evaluate drugs is a bold first step into this new era. This essay discusses the potential risks of basing federal drug policies on computer models that have not been thoroughly explained or validated (using the kratom debate as a case study).

Kratom grows naturally in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia where it has been used for centuries as a stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, the plant has gained popularity in the United States as an alternative to illicit and prescription narcotics. Kratom advocates claim it is harmless and useful for treating pain and easing symptoms of opioid withdrawal. However, the FDA contends it has no medical use and causes serious or fatal complications. As a result, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may categorize kratom in Schedule I, its most heavily restricted category.

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Dementia And The Law: P/Review 2017–18

This new post by Francis X. Shen appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.

Another year, another failed Alzheimer’s drug trial. In what is becoming routine news, in 2017, another Alzheimer’s drug failed in clinical trial, leading to the apt headline: “The List of Failed Alzheimer’s Drug Treatments Keeps Growing.” Moreover, there seem to be few evidence-based options even to limit cognitive decline. Research continues of course, and there remain multiple—and potentially promising—pharmacological interventions in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pipeline.

One of the reasons that successful drugs have been elusive is scientists are still trying to figure out the exact underlying neurobiology of Alzheimer’s. The past year saw the publication of a major scientific study showing that in mice, the gene variant ApoE4 (which is linked to a much higher risk for Alzheimer’s) affects both β-amyloid and tau buildup in the brain. The study’s implication of tau was important because the scientific community has been debating the “amyloid hypothesis,” whether the field’s sometimes singular focus on β-amyloid buildup was misguided. This debate is so intense that in 2017 it even made its way to the pages of The Atlantic. […]

Read the full post here!

Solitary Confinement: Torture, Pure and Simple

Cross-posted from the Psychology Today blog, where it originally appeared on January 15, 2018. 

By Gali Katznelson and J. Wesley Boyd

Let’s call it for what it is: Placing prisoners in solitary confinement is tantamount to torture and it needs to stop.

The practice of placing incarcerated individuals in solitary confinement dates back to the 1820s in America when it was thought that isolating individuals in prison would help with their rehabilitation. Yet, over the past two centuries, it has become clear that locking people away for 22 to 24 hours a day is anything but rehabilitative. Solitary confinement is so egregious a punishment that in 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment condemned its use, except in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, and banned the practice completely for people with mental illnesses and for juveniles.

Despite its barbarity, the United States continues to place thousands of people, including individuals with mental illnesses and children, in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. Thirty years ago, Dr. Stuart Grassian, who recently spoke at Harvard Medical School’s “Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons” conference, evaluated 14 individuals placed in solitary confinement and found the same symptoms in many of them: hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, and derealisation experiences; affective disturbances, such as anxiety and panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, memory and concentration; the emergence of fantasies such as of revenge and torture of the guards; paranoia; problems with impulse control; and a rapid decrease in symptoms immediately following release from isolation. Taken together, Dr. Grassian proposed that these symptoms amount to a pathopsychological syndrome.

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The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part III: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Dismissed Harm Reduction Strategies

By Mason Marks

Drug overdose is a leading cause of death in Americans under 50. Opioids are responsible for most drug-related deaths killing an estimated 91 people each day. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In Part II I explore how the Commission dismissed medical interventions used successfully in the U.S. and abroad such as kratom and ibogaine. In this third part of the series, I explain how the Commission ignored increasingly proven harm reduction strategies such as drug checking and safe injection facilities (SIFs).

In its final report released November 1, 2017, the President’s Commission acknowledged that “synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl analogs, are by far the most problematic substances because they are emerging as a leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in the United States.” While speaking before the House Oversight Committee last month, the Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan stated that of the 1180 overdose deaths in his state this year, 850 (72%) were due to synthetic opioids. Street drugs are often contaminated with fentanyl and other synthetics. Dealers add them to heroin, and buyers may not be aware that they are consuming adulterated drugs. As a result, they can be caught off guard by their potency, which contributes to respiratory depression and death. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are responsible for the sharpest rise in opioid-related mortality (see blue line in Fig. 1 below). Read More

Civil Commitment and the Opioid Epidemic: A Call for Research

By Scott Burris, JD

There is a lot of interest in civil commitment these days, as a possible tool to fight two big health problems. As we continue to watch the rates of opioid-related deaths climb, and in the wake of an unfunded emergency declaration by President Trump, some policymakers are looking to involuntarily commit overdose survivors for drug treatment. On the gun violence side, experts like Jeffrey Swanson have argued for applying gun-access restrictions that now cover people subject to long-term civil commitment to those subjected to short-term civil commitment.

With those kinds of ideas in the air, it is important to recognize how little modern data we have on commitment and its effects. In a recent article in the Washington Post discussing commitment for opioid treatment, Michael Stein and Paul Christopher emphasize how little we know. I entirely agree on the need for more research, and offer a couple of things to help.

The first is the Policy Surveillance Program’s LawAtlas dataset that maps civil commitment laws across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. If we’re going to examine these laws and their impact, this is the place to start. We also put out the call to anyone interested in studying this to work with us not only to update this data through 2017, but also to make sure we’re mining these laws and their characteristics for the right information in these circumstances — Are we asking the right questions? Read More