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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Psychiatrists’ Liability for Patient’s Violence Against Other People: Washington Supreme Court Abolishes the Inpatient-Outpatient Distinction

By Alex Stein

In a recent decision, Volk v. DeMeerleer, 386 P.3d 254 (Wash. 2016), the Washington Supreme Court relaxed the “control” prerequisite for psychiatrists’ duty to protect third parties against violent patients.

The Court made this decision in a case involving a psychiatric patient who murdered his girlfriend and her nine-year old son and then committed suicide (after attempting to kill the girlfriend’s older son as well). For nine years leading up to that tragedy, the patient received outpatient care from the defendant psychiatrist, during which he expressed suicidal and homicidal ideations (without naming the potential victims).

The Court held that the psychiatrist had a “special relationship” with the victims because he was able to control the patient. Correspondingly, the psychiatrist had a duty to exercise “reasonable care to act consistent with the standards of the mental health profession, in order to protect the foreseeable victims of his or her patient.” The Court reasoned in this connection that some ability to control the patient’s conduct is sufficient for the “special relationship” and the consequent duty of care to exist. For that reason, psychiatrists should assume responsibility not only for an inpatient’s actions, but also in connection with an outpatient’s violence against third parties. Read More

American Psychiatric Association Releases Formal Position Statement on Euthanasia

By Wendy S. Salkin

End of Life Care, NIH
Image Source: NIH Consensus Development Project

Last month, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released a position statement on medical euthanasia. The statement, approved by the APA Assembly in November and approved by the Board of Trustees in December, states:

The American Psychiatric Association, in concert with the American Medical Association’s position on medical euthanasia, holds that a psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.

According to the APA Operations Manual, APA position statements “provide the basis for statements made on behalf of the APA before government bodies and agencies and communicated to the media and the general public.”

For those who are wondering, What’s the American Medical Association’s [AMA] position on medical euthanasia?, here is your answer: From Section 8 of Chapter 5 (“Opinions on Caring for Patients at the End of Life”) of the AMA Code of Ethics: Read More

Outpatient Psychiatric Treatment: The Duty to Prevent Patient Suicide

By Alex Stein

In Chirillo v. Granicz, — So.3d —- (Fla. 2016), 2016 WL 4493536, the Florida Supreme Court formulated an important rule for psychiatric malpractice cases. Back in 2001, the First District Court of Appeal decided that psychiatrists assume no liability for an outpatient’s suicide because it is generally unforeseeable. Tort liability, it held, can properly be imposed on a psychiatrist only for a custodial psychiatric malpractice. According to the First District, an inpatient’s suicide is foreseeable and psychiatrists can effectively prevent it by restraining the patient. Lawlor v. Orlando, 795 So.2d 147 (Fla. 1st DCA 2001).

The Florida Supreme Court has now overruled Lawlor. Read More

“Medical Malpractice or Ordinary Negligence?” in the Context of Psychiatric Treatment

By Alex Stein

“Medical Malpractice or Ordinary Negligence?” is an issue that will stay on the courts’ agenda for long. See hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

As I explained in these posts and in a foundational article on medical malpractice, categorizing a plaintiff’s action as “medical malpractice” rather than “ordinary negligence” determines whether it must satisfy rigid limitations and repose provisions, comply with special and costly requirements with regard to expert testimony, face the difficult burden of proving the defendant’s deviation from the medical profession’s customary practices and protocols, and suffice itself with the compensation amounts allowed by the statutory caps on damages.

A recent Florida court decision, Shands Teaching Hosp. & Clinics v. Estate of Lawson, — So.3d —- 2015 WL 5057325 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015), illustrates the centrality of this issue for suits complaining about a psychiatric hospital’s neglect. Read More

Mental Therapist’s Duty to Prevent Patient’s Crime

By Alex Stein

A clinical social worker hears from his patient about the patient’s interest in child pornography, but does nothing to solve the problem. Later on, the police raids the patient’s house to find evidence that he illegally downloaded, viewed and possessed child pornography. The patient now faces criminal charges.

Can he sue the social worker for malpractice? Would a similar suit be available against a psychiatrist? Read More

Daubert as a Problem for Psychiatrists

By Alex Stein

Most psychiatrists don’t know about it, but the switch from Frye to Daubert in the admission of expert testimony matters for them a lot. Psychiatrists treat patients with second-generation antipsychotics: Zyprexa, Risperdal, Clozaril, Seroquel, and similar drugs. A reputable, but still controversial, body of research links those drugs to tardive dyskinesia: a serious neurological disorder involving uncontrollable facial grimacing, repetitive tongue thrusting, and other untoward bodily movements. Under Frye, expert evidence can only be admitted upon showing that it received “standing and scientific recognition” from the relevant community of experts. Absence of a solid consensus disqualifies the evidence. Expert testimony linking tardive dyskinesia to antipsychotic drugs consequently would not be admissible under Frye. Under Daubert, however, it would go into evidence because its underlying research is grounded in scientific method and procedure that can be replicated, examined, and properly explained to the jury.

This is exactly what happened in a recent case decided by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia: Patteson v. Maloney— F.Supp.2d —-, 2013 WL 5133495 (D.D.C. 2013). Read More

Proximate Cause in Georgia

By Alex Stein

Two days ago, Georgia’s Court of Appeals decided Georgia Clinic v. Stout, — S.E.2d —-, 2013 WL 3497703 (Ga. App. 2013).

This tragic case features an elderly patient with an arthritic knee. Her doctors injected that knee with medication drawn from a multi-dose vial. They did so at their clinic under non-sterile conditions that included poor infection controls, failure to maintain sterile field, and poor hand-washing facilities (the clinic had no sinks and alcohol hand cleaners in the examination rooms). As a result, the patient’s knee was infected with methicillin-sensitive staphylococcus aureus (“MSSA”). Four other patients of the same clinic were also infected with MSSA from the same multi-dose vial.

The patient developed excruciating pain in her knee and became depressed. The doctors treated her for the pain in the knee but neglected the depression. They failed to refer the patient to a psychiatrist. After a short period of time, the patient committed suicide by jumping from the window of her 14th floor apartment. She left behind a suicide note saying that she can’t take her pain anymore and prefers to die. Read More