NEW YORK - CIRCA DECEMBER 2020: Crowd of people wearing masks walking in the street.

The Pandemic Policy Excuse of ‘Meeting People Where They Are’

By Daniel Goldberg

Too often throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers have justified controversial policy choices by stating that the world is not arranged in a way to make certain actions feasible. While practical difficulties matter, permitting such difficulties to exhaust the scope of our ethical obligations is a grave mistake that moves us farther away from a just and equitable world.

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Madison, Wisconsin / USA - April 24th, 2020: Nurses at Reopen Wisconsin Protesting against the protesters protesting safer at home order rally holding signs telling people to go home.

The Consequences of Public Health Law Vacuums

By Daniel Goldberg

Pandemic planning documents and materials from the early 2000s to the present anticipated a great deal of what the U.S. has been experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The best of such plans documented exactly what be required to manage, respond, and control a pandemic spread by a highly communicable respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2.

What the plans did not account for was what we are now experiencing: That governments would simply refuse to govern.

Few truly accounted for the possibility that the very entities charged with regulating for the health, safety, and welfare of their residents and citizens would simply decline to do so, choosing instead the public health law vacuums in which we find ourselves at the present time. Read More

Waitress wears face mask and face shield, cleans table with alcohol and wet wipe at restaurant.

The Problem with Individual-Level Interventions to Curb the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Daniel Goldberg

The failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States rests, in part, on the individualist nature of our public health responses.

Public health simply does not work well when we base our interventions on the individual level. This is known as “methodological individualism,” and the evidence suggests it is both ineffective and can expand existing health inequalities. It is problematic in any public health context, but especially in pandemic response and control.

Take, for example, the ongoing debate over mask mandates. Multiple governors have refused to issue mask mandates, instead simply requesting that people don masks. The objection, interestingly, is not to the idea of masking as a public health intervention, but to the existence of a mandate itself.

Yet a model of public health which consists of nothing more than pleading with individuals to avoid behaving in ways injurious to public health would be an abject failure. Imagine if, instead of imposing minimum requirements for clean water, we simply asked regulated industries to avoid polluting watersheds. Or perhaps instead of passing laws discouraging or even criminalizing obviously harmful behavior, we simply asked people to avoid driving drunk.

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supervised injection site

NIMBYism continues to factor into supervised injection site policies

As a major tool in harm reduction policy connected to opioid and substance misuse, more than 30 states have implemented syringe exchange programs, or SEPs.

Surmounting or, in many cases, bypassing the considerable legal and political obstacles has proved a challenge for states, whether they succeeded in enacting SEPs or not. While, given the opioid crisis, SEPs are more important than ever, they do have limitations.

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long staircase

Epistemic Injustice, Disability Stigma and Public Health Law

By Daniel Goldberg

Public health law can integrate medical and social understandings of disability in ways that promise to reduce disability stigma and enhance epistemic justice.

However, models of disability currently embedded in public health law do precisely the opposite, at least partly due to the fact that public health laws have historically assimilated medicalized models of disability.

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Concussions, the N.F.L., & the Manufacture of Doubt

{SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION ALERT}

A new article of mine is out in the Journal of Legal Medicine entitled “Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, the National Football League, and the Manufacture of Doubt: An Ethical, Legal, and Historical Analysis.”  I’ve written on the subject before, but in case anyone is interested, here is the Abstract of the current paper:

This paper integrates legal, historical, and ethical approaches in analyzing the National Football League’s conduct regarding the risks its players face of experiencing concussions and the long-term neurodegenerative pathologies to which such injury is linked.  Given that millions of children and adolescents play American football, and that the NFL concedes its behavior is a strong determinant of football culture, concussion issues are crucial matters of population health.  Examining over 500 pages of testimony generated during Congressional hearings in 2009 and 2010, the paper links claims issued by leading NFL representatives to past efforts by industrial actors to manufacture doubt.  The paper therefore argues that the history of public health is crucial to framing just public health policy in the present.  The paper applies two frameworks drawn from public health ethics to argue first that a robust process of public reason is stymied by the NFL’s insistence on privately holding information relevant to its attitudes, practices and beliefs regarding concussions, and second, that the unequal distribution of ‘football prevalence’ exposes already disadvantaged groups such as African-Americans to higher risks of concussions and neurological disease.  The paper concludes that this latter possibility may contravene mandates of social justice, and, if so, would be ethically suboptimal.

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The Oregon Health Study and the Medicalization of Health Policy

According to the website, the Oregon Health Study “is the first randomized controlled  experiment to examine the causal effects of having some type of insurance coverage versus having no insurance at all.”  The findings, released a few days ago, have unleashed a storm of commentary on what the investigators did and did not find in terms of links between coverage and health outcomes.  Writing  over at The Incidental Economist, Harold Pollack quotes Joseph Newhouse for the notion that the “Oregon Medicaid experiment ‘is a Rorschach test of people’s views on the ACA.’”  After the jump, I am going to try to defend that claim, although likely not in the way that good readers of Bill of Health might expect.

So here’s the funny thing: even though I am an attorney, an historian, and a bioethicist who researches health inequalities, stigma, and social justice, I actually am less of an expert on the delivery of health care services than virtually every blogger here, and likely a goodly portion of the readership, too.  When interviewing for a job as a prawf some years ago, I was asked for my opinion on the fate of the ACA (then still in Congress), and I had to shrug and say that I really was not up to date on all of the provisions of the bill nor of its likely passage, nor of its potential impact.  (No, I did not get the job!).

This is not because of anti-intellectualism, I believe (and hope!).  This is rather because of my engagement with the overwhelming evidence that access to health care services is simply not a prime determinant of health and its distribution in human populations.  In a seminal 2007 essay in Health Affairs, Paula Lantz, Richard Lichtenstein, and the good Dr. Pollack himself note that “Lack of access to health care is not the fundamental cause of health vulnerability or social disparities in health” (p. 1256).*  The authors go on to warn of the limits of medicalizing health policy, and suggest that if we want to use laws and policies to improve overall population health and compress health inequities, we need to go way beyond simply expanding access to basic health care services.

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Twitter Round-Up (3/31-4/6)

By Casey Thomson

This week’s slightly belated round-up concerns palliative care across cultures, the threat and problems of over-prescribing, and Big Pharma’s failure to create prices with the patient in mind. Read on for more from this week’s round-up.

  • Alex Smith (@AlexSmithMD) retweeted a piece on the lessons learned by Dr. Vvjeyanthi “V.J.” Periyakoil on how to approach palliative care for patients from a variety of backgrounds in ways that both extend life and fulfill the desires of the patient (in particular, reducing pain). (4/3)
  • Alex Smith (@AlexSmithMD) also retweeted an opinion piece in the NYT about the growing trend towards self- and over-medication, and the problems of overextending definitions of medical ‘conditions.’ As the piece’s author summarized: “The D.S.M. would do well to recognize that a broken heart is not a medical condition, and that medication is ill-suited to repair some tears.” (4/3)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) retweeted a link on two new wrongful death lawsuits against the NFL, which claim that the NFL withheld knowledge of the risks associated with concussions from players, that have been added to the string of other brain injury lawsuits filed against the league. (4/3)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) additionally retweeted a blog post on the striking results of a new study comparing male and female mortality amongst counties in the United States. While male mortality increased in only 34% of counties from 1992-1996 to 2002-2006, female mortality increased in 42.8%. This brings up questions concerning the cause of this demographic and largely geographic inequality, and what such a differential could mean on the health of dependents (children). (4/3)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) posted another article that put the recent New York “True Cost” campaign in historical context. The article called the campaign a “modern manifestation of…anxieties about the ‘contagion’ of working class and poor communities,” comparing it to the World War II-era venereal disease campaigns and the case of Typhoid Mary as all moralizing weapons aiming to instill shame rather than promote actual solutions to public health concerns. (4/4)
  • Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) linked to his own discussion of the problem with Novartis and India, noting that emphasis has been wrongly placed on patents when the concern should be on pharma’s hesitancy to create a pricing strategy that can provide medications for those who cannot afford huge prices. This unwillingness to do so, he claims, is violating a moral obligation. (4/4)

Twitter Round-Up (1/27-2/7)

By Casey Thomson

Even the surprisingly resurrected Richard III (on the Twitter-sphere, anyway) appreciates bioethics concerns. Read on to find out more about Richard III’s eagerness for patient confidentiality and other updates in this week’s (extended) Twitter round-up:

  • Stephen Latham (@StephenLatham) included a link to his blog post challenging Andrew Francis’ recent claim that penicillin was the central drug spawning the sexual revolution of the 1960s. While penicillin may have facilitated the widespread acceptance of pre-marital relations, it was The Pill that “translat[ed] that newfound sexual freedom into sexual equality.” (1/28)
  • Dan Vorhaus (@genomicslawyer) posted a summary video regarding the Neanderthal baby story that rocked the internet in the past few weeks, as reported by Taiwan’s Next Media animation. (1/28)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) shared a news report on Israel’s recent admittance to giving birth control to Ethiopian Jewish immigrants, frequently without either consent or knowledge. Concerns first arose after an investigative journalist began to explore why birth rates in the community had fallen so drastically and seemingly inexplicably. (1/28)
  • Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) linked to a piece explaining the future implications and consequences of the guidance requiring schools to make “reasonable modifications” in order to include students with disabilities in either general athletic programs or provide them with parallel opportunities. The guidance, while a potential huge move forward for individuals with disabilities, nonetheless will be nothing without “tough and honest conversation about financing and revenue – and soon.” (1/28)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) retweeted an article showing the return of the “invisible gorilla” from the 2010 book, but this time in the fake CT scans shown to both expert radiologists and volunteers alike. The gorilla was large in size compared to the typically indicative nodules, and was unmistakably a gorilla, but yet 20 out of the 24 radiologists failed to see the gorilla. It’s a frightening real-life example of what the original study’s jargon terms as “inattentional blindness.” (1/29)
  • Kevin Outterson (@koutterson) live tweeted the Pew meeting concerning new antibiotic development pathways for limited populations. See the string of tweets on his Twitter page for further details of how the meeting proceeded. (1/31)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) shared a link describing the first scientific evidence suggesting that doctors can “truly feel” their patients’ pain. The study, done by Harvard researchers, used brain scans to indicate activated regions of physicians’ brains during a simulated interaction with patients. (2/1)
  • Frank Pasquale (@FrankPasquale) linked to a story on the problems associated with over-prescribing amphetamine-based medications, particularly to teenagers and young adults. While focusing on the individual story of an aspiring medical student named Richard Fee, the author delves into the underexposed side effects of often overzealous prescribing and the surprisingly casual attitude that most Americans hold towards this medication. (2/3)
  • Frank Pasquale (@FrankPasquale) also posted a piece inspired by the talk surrounding World Cancer Day on the problems related to cancer treatment in developing countries. Contrary to being solely a problem of so-called developed nations, cancer remains an issue globally – including such cancers that are caused by an infectious agent. Fighting the false notions – that cancer in developing nations is minimal, that it is always not “catchable,” and that enough care (particularly vaccines) is being delivered – is essential to reducing the global inequity in cancer treatment. (2/4)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) retweeted the (supposedly resurrected and technologically adept) Richard III’s tweet regarding publication of details surrounding his newly-identified bones: “Hmmm not so happy about my physical attributes being discussed in public. What happened to patient confidentiality ???” (2/4)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) shared a report on a new study that found a correlation between low self-esteem and female body representation and obsession in “chick lit.” The report noted that the results suggested a possible “intervention tool” by having characters seek support from friends and family for such body concerns. (2/5)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) retweeted a graphic eloquently summarizing one of the simplest and most potent arguments in favor of vaccination, and arguably the greater biopharmaceutical industry. (2/6)

Note: As mentioned in previous posts, retweeting should not be considered as an endorsement of or agreement with the content of the original tweet.

Twitter Round-Up (1/20-1/26)

By Casey Thomson

Though simply the consequence of bad translation, the story of the Harvard geneticist George Church looking for a woman to act as surrogate for a Neanderthal clone shocked the internet bioethics world. A look at the problems with this hypothetical situation is just one of the components of this week’s Twitter Round-Up.

  • Frank Pasquale (@FrankPasquale) linked to an opinion piece discussing the reasoning behind the United States’ place in the world rankings of life expectancy at different stages of life. The news is a big hit to ideas of American exceptionalism: according to a report by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, Americans have a substantially higher death rate for those younger than 50 as compared to Western Europeans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians, but once they reach the age of 80, they have some of the longest life expectancies globally. (1/20)
  • Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) shared his article on why Neanderthal cloning is a bad idea, both in terms of safety and in terms of avoiding cruelty. (1/22)
  • Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) posted a news story on the reopening of bird flu experimental procedures for vaccine creation. Caplan was quoted in the article as stating: “I have no issue with restarting the research but some issue with where they are going to publish it and where they present it because bad guys can use it too.” (1/23)
  • Daniel Goldberg (@prof_goldberg) included an evaluation as to the medical disparities occurring in Colorado, particularly between races. The article emphasized in its conclusion that the existence of the disparities themselves is quite clear, but discussion on how to erase such differences is noticeably absent. (1/23)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) retweeted a post that attempted to quantifiably compare the quality of care in Medicare options, namely whether Medicare Advantage plans 1) will eventually shortchange patients by skipping out on care quality because of profit motive or 2) have incentives to improve care quality because of the newly implemented systematic quality monitoring, where poor ratings impact them financially. The author found that most existing data makes the second theory more compelling, though the amount of data regarding the subject in general is largely lacking. (1/24)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) also shared a link to an explanation of the intricacies of “personalized regulation” in medicine, which aims to preserve patient choice in an era leaning more and more towards paternalistic medical oversight. Understanding that patients may choose to make rational decisions that diverge from the community or committee consensus is key towards improving medical care to better reflect patient wants, and rights. (1/24)
  • Arthur Caplan (@ArthurCaplan) included a story on the large imbalance in misconduct reports in research between the genders. Men overwhelmingly led the charge, with only nine women out of the 72 faculty members who committed research misconduct. (1/24)
  • Michelle Meyer (@MichelleNMeyer) additionally shared a letter written by the Editor of The Hastings Center’s Bioethics Forum on the reasoning behind publication of a controversial article on the social pressures leading to obesity. The letter calls for the importance of recognizing that publication means that an article contributes to the larger debate on an issue, though does not affirm that the publication medium agrees with the views espoused within; it also encouraged responses to the ideas of the article. (1/25)
  • Stephen Latham (@StephenLatham) posted a video link from Comedy Central on the perils of WebMD and vegetarianism. (1/25)

Note: As mentioned in previous posts, retweeting should not be considered as an endorsement of or agreement with the content of the original tweet.