Los Angeles, California, United States. June 23, 2021: #FreeBritney rally at LA Downtown Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears.

There’s More to Decision-Making Capacity than Cognitive Function

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts. Though the Workshop is typically open to the public, it is not currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of our presenters will contribute blog posts summarizing their work, which we are happy to share here on Bill of Health.

By James Toomey

The doctrine of capacity is a mess.

From Britney Spears’s high-profile struggles to establish her own capacity to the countless, quiet challenges of so many older adults, the doctrine of capacity, which requires people to have the cognitive functioning to understand the nature and consequences of a decision in order for it to be recognized in law, is vague, normatively and medically challenging, and inconsistently applied.

This is a big deal — at stake in every capacity case is whether, on the one hand, an individual may access the legal rights most of us take for granted, to enter into contracts, buy or transfer property, or get married or divorced; or, on the other, whether the legal system will ratify a decision the “real person” never would have made.

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Washington, USA- January13, 2020: FDA Sign outside their headquarters in Washington. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA or USFDA) is a federal agency of the USA.

FDA Approves Aducanumab for Alzheimer’s Disease: An Unethical Decision?

By Beatrice Brown

On June 7, 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the accelerated approval of aducanumab (Aduhelm), a biologic manufactured by Biogen for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

The FDA’s decision, which went against the near-unanimous opinion of its own advisory committee following its meeting in November 2020, has been embroiled in controversy over whether the available evidence demonstrated benefits that outweigh the risks of the drug. Namely, questions remain whether: 1) the conflicting evidence from the two pivotal trials is sufficient to suggest clinical benefit worthy of approval; and 2) the surrogate measure used to justify its accelerated approval is actually correlated with clinical benefit.

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Hundred dollar bills rolled up in a pill bottle

Aducanumab: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

By Emily Largent

On June 7, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used the Accelerated Approval pathway to approve aducanumab, which will go by the brand name Aduhelm, to treat patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Aducanumab, developed by Biogen, is the first novel therapy approved for AD since 2003. This news has left many experts stunned.

I have at least one colleague, Dr. Jason Karlawish, who has publicly stated that he will not prescribe aducanumab. Other clinicians have said they will only prescribe it reluctantly. These are individuals who have dedicated decades of their lives to treating patients with AD, to conducting path-breaking research and serving as investigators in clinical trials, and to advocating for public policies that will better serve AD patients and their families. Many have also seen their own families affected by AD. My colleagues are hardly indifferent to the suffering wrought by AD and would like to have a meaningful treatment to offer to patients and their families. But, they have concluded, aducanumab is not it.

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Person in nursing home.

Long-Term Care After COVID: A Roadmap for Law Reform

By Nina A. Kohn

Between May 2020 and January 2021, 94 percent of U.S. nursing homes experienced at least one COVID-19 outbreak. And nursing home residents — isolated from family and friends, dependent on staff often tasked with providing care to far more residents than feasible, and sometimes crowded into rooms with three or more people — succumbed the virus at record rates. By March 2021, nursing home residents accounted for a quarter of all U.S. COVID-19-related deaths.

The poor conditions in nursing homes that have been exposed by the pandemic are symptomatic of long-standing problems in the industry.

Fortunately, as I discuss in-depth in a new essay in the Georgetown Law Journal Online, there are a series of practical reforms that could readily improve the quality of nursing home care, in large part by changing the incentives for nursing home providers.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

COVID-19 and Dementia Care: Lessons for the Future

By Marie Clouqueur, Brent P. Forester, and Ipsit V. Vahia

Alongside the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S., the country faces another public health epidemic: dementia, and particularly Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently one in nine older adults in the U.S. — 6.2 million — have Alzheimer’s disease. The number of adults with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. will increase rapidly as the Baby Boomers age — it is expected to double by 2050.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Acute, surging demand for dementia care services will turn into a persistent problem if we do not increase our capacity for services and better support our frontline workers. We have a chance now to reflect and take action to prepare for what is coming.

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ANDOVER,HAMPSHIRE/UNITED KINGDOM-NOVEMBER 6 2019:A district nurse visits a ninety-four year old patient at his home to treat for pulmonary edema and head/brain injury.

Challenges Facing Home Health Caregivers During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Vicki Hoak

The pandemic has emphasized the value of home health caregivers. Their contribution has been overshadowed for decades, but now it is very clear how important their work is to the well-being of older Americans, people with disabilities, and medically-fragile children.

As families were urged to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19, home care agencies and their staff became all the more important for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the most vulnerable from the disease. Home health aides offer clients one-to-one care and continual monitoring of changes in conditions — all in the safety of one’s own home.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

Telehealth and the Future of Long-Term Care

Join us on Wednesday, April 7 for further discussion of these issues during our virtual event, “Triumphs & Tensions of the Telehealth Boom.

By Tara Sklar

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend away from providing health care and long-term care in institutional settings in ways not previously imagined; the result of a reckoning with the massacre that disproportionately killed hundreds of thousands of older adults living in nursing homes or similar congregate facilities, along with the staff who cared for them.

Beyond the immediate staffing and infection control issues at hand, this juncture leads to a larger question, in the U.S. and abroad: how can we best care for an older population in the decades — and not just years — ahead?

The major advances and shortfalls that have surfaced during the pandemic around telehealth and its related technologies in digital home health care are essential to this discussion.

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White jigsaw puzzle as a human brain on blue. Concept for Alzheimer's disease.

Detecting Dementia

Cross-posted, with slight modification, from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on November 21, 2020. 

By Chloe Reichel

Experts gathered last month to discuss the ethical, social, and legal implications of technological advancements that facilitate the early detection of dementia.

“Detecting Dementia: Technology, Access, and the Law,” was hosted on Nov. 16 as part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

The event, organized by Francis X. Shen ’06 Ph.D. ’08, the Petrie-Flom Center’s senior fellow in Law and Applied Neuroscience and executive director of the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, was one of a series hosted by the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience on aging brains.

Early detection of dementia is a hopeful prospect for the treatment of patients, both because it may facilitate early medical intervention, as well as more robust advance care planning.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

Seniors’ Perspectives on Dementia and Decision-Making

By James Toomey

In order to make a decision recognized in law — to enter into or enforce a contract, buy or sell property, or get married or divorced — an individual must have the mental capacity the law requires for the decision. As people, especially older adults, develop dementia, their decision-making abilities are increasingly compromised, and the law begins to find that they lack capacity for particular decisions.

The standards governing capacity determinations, however, are notorious for being vague, inconsistently applied, and excessively curtailing the rights of those with dementia. Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of an agreed-upon normative theory for when in the course of dementia the law ought to intervene in individual decision-making. That is why, here on Bill of Health, I’ve previously called for understanding the perspectives of seniors — the population affected by the doctrine of capacity most closely and most often — on this normative question.

In my recent publication “Understanding the Perspectives of Seniors on Dementia and Decision-Making” in AJOB Empirical Bioethics, I’ve begun to do so, reporting the results of an empirical study that I conducted with the Petrie-Flom Student Fellowship in the 2018-19 academic year. The study, which involved an online survey of and interviews with older adults, revealed a heterogeneity of ways of thinking about the problem, supporting a flexible legal doctrine that would assist people in making their own choices. Notwithstanding the diversity, however, the data reveal several conclusions and tensions of interest to academics and healthcare and legal practitioners.

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