a stethoscope tied around a dollar bill, with a bottle of pills nearby

Drug Pricing Controls and the Power of Familiar Ideas

Eight in ten Americans think that prescription drug prices are unreasonable, according to a March 2018 Kaiser poll. That same poll found that more Americans considered passing legislation to lower drug pricing to be a top priority than passing legislation to improve infrastructure or to address the prescription painkiller epidemic, among other things.

Effectively addressing drug pricing is a complex task that will require the diligent efforts of many actors. On October 24, the Petrie-Flom Center held a full day’s programming to this important and timely topic. What I want to state here is a simple point—namely, that the very discussion of potential solutions can play a role in turning creative innovations into implementable solutions.

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image of hands texting on a smart phone

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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illustration of abstract ecnomics

The Need for an Economic Bioethics

As the animations of markets increasingly shape the timbre and character of medicine, scholars studying ethical issues in health and medicine must be increasingly attentive to the role of market forces as they shape modern health care.

For those interested in the social, ethical, and conceptual dimensions of contemporary health and medicine, there has been a sustained focus on a key set of important challenges; how do we ensure adequate access to health for marginalized and global populations? What are the social and ethical implications of emergent technologies? How are issues of consent articulated in the everyday interactions of the clinic? What are our obligations to persons in terms of end-of-life care? These longstanding concerns regarding access, new technologies and the rights of patients comprise the major thrusts and foci of bioethics, health care ethics, and associated areas of inquiry.

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‘Big Data, Health Law, and Bioethics’ Examines the Intersection of Major Issues in Health Care

When data from all aspects of our lives can be relevant to our health – from our habits at the grocery store and our Google searches to our FitBit data and our medical records – can we really differentiate between big data and health big data? Will health big data be used for good, such as to improve drug safety, or ill, as in insurance discrimination? Will it disrupt health care (and the health care system) as we know it? Will it be possible to protect our health privacy? What barriers will there be to collecting and utilizing health big data? What role should law play, and what ethical concerns may arise? A new timely, groundbreaking volume explores these questions and more from a variety of perspectives, examining how law promotes or discourages the use of big data in the health care sphere, and also what we can learn from other sectors.

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Can a national conscience be gene edited?

Gene editing is at once promising and perilous. Or, as John Oliver said in a recent episode of his news show, it is ”either going to kill all disease or kill every last one of us.”

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is not as amusing as John Oliver, and unlike the summer film “Rampage,” its new gene editing report features neither The Rock nor a genetically modified, 30-foot wolf.

But if you want to understand what we may actually be getting ourselves into, England’s de facto national bioethics commission has produced a useful roadmap for educating the public and addressing concerns. It may the summer read you’ve been looking for.

And if there’s a gene splicer for envy, I’m ready to be CRISPR’d.

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Hastening Death to Avoid Prolonged Dementia

By Norman L. Cantor

The scourge of Alzheimer’s is daunting. For me, the specter of being mired in progressively degenerative dementia is an intolerably degrading prospect. One avoidance tactic — suicide while still competent — risks a premature demise while still enjoying a tolerable lifestyle.

The question arises whether an alternative tactic — an advance directive declining all life-sustaining intervention once a certain point of debilitation is reached — might be preferable as a device to avert a prolonged, unwanted limbo.

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A data set that looks like America

By Oliver Kim

May marks the annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which recognizes the history and contributions of this diverse population in the United States. Accounting for that diversity though is one of the challenges facing the Asian American-Pacific Islander (AAPI) community: for example, the Library of Congress commemorative website recognizes that AAPI is a “rather broad term” that can include

all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

Understanding that diversity has huge policy and political implications, particularly in health policy. Read More

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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Elder abuse is not substantiated

Philip C. Marshal is an elder justice advocate and founder of Beyond Brooke. The remarks below were prepared for Our Aging Brains: Decision-making, Fraud, and Undue Influence, part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience at Harvard Law School; April 27, 2018. The complete version of Decision-making, fraud, and undue influence—illustrated through the lens of the Brooke Astor story was published April 28, 2018 in Medium.

The meaning of elder abuse remains misunderstood, even by professionals.

I know—from hard-learned experience—when I, and many others, worked to save my grandmother from abuse by my father.

In a December 2006 court decision, my grandmother’s guardianship judge authorized reimbursement of my legal fees for bringing a guardianship petition for my grandmother, stating, “Although this matter voluntarily settled before the hearing, I find the petitioner Philip Marshall was the prevailing party…”

But the judge also decided to award my father a portion of his legal fees, writing, “I make this ruling based on the conclusion of the court evaluator that the allegations in the petition regarding Mrs. Astor’s medical and dental care, and the other allegations of intentional elder abuse by the Marshalls, were not substantiated.” [italics added]

Decision—In the Matter of the Application of Philip Marshall for the appointment of a Guardian for the Person and Property for Brooke Astor, an Alleged Incapacitated Person. Judge John A. Stackhouse, Supreme Court of the State of New York. December 4, 2006 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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