Medicine and Ethics: Religious or Secular?

By Yusuf Lenfest

There is no lack of controversy when talking about religion and medicine in America today. Medicine is studied, practiced, and firmly rooted in the corporal world while religion draws inspiration from texts, traditions, and the incorporeal. Yet from an historical perspective, religious pasts do shape the present, particularly in the realm of ethics and moral reasoning. Indeed, whatever one’s spiritual or philosophical predilections, religion continues to play a major role in the dialogue on medicine and health care in Western society.

Bioethics in particular has become a topic of growing interest in America, but there has been little critical discussion about its contextual underpinnings, which stem largely from a Western Christian perspective. This is not to say that another religion would arrive at radically different system of morals. While differences do exist amongst religious traditions, across both space and time, experience and common sense tell us that diverse religious traditions do in fact share in much of the same moral principles and foundations. So what might other religious traditions say about, or contribute to, the discourse on bioethics? Should religion even be included in the conversation, especially given that health care and healing belong to the sphere of medicine?

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“There are millions of people who are living below subsistence”: Black Panther Party Founder Bobby Seale as Public Health Activist

By Wendy S. Salkin

Picture it: Tuesday, February 14, 2017. It is four o’clock and the Tsai Auditorium of the Center for Government and International Studies is packed to the gills, abuzz with energy. Harvard faculty, students, staff, and community members fill every seat, line the steps, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the back. They are turning would-be attendees away at the door. The occasion for such excitement is this: The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research here at Harvard hosted the event, “Bobby Seale in Conversation with Jim Sidanius.”

Jim Sidanius is the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology in memory of William James and of African and African American Studies. His work spans broadly across both decades and areas of inquiry. He and his co-author Felicia Pratto are famously responsible for formulating social dominance theory, “a general model of the development and maintenance of group-based social hierarchy and social oppression.” He has also pioneered work in other areas of political psychology, including such research areas as “political ideology and cognitive functioning, the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.”

And Bobby Seale, as you may know, co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). I had never before seen Bobby Seale speak and did not know what to expect. And, ultimately, I am pleased not to have watched any of his interviews in advance, as I was able to have the experience with fresh eyes. (It’s worth noting that many of his interviews and speeches are easily accessible on YouTube. It’s worth watching them, including his 2015 New York Times interview with R&B artist D’Angelo.) His energy and enthusiasm captivates his audience, as when, during his talk last week, he recited from the Declaration of Independence, and while so doing impersonated both John Wayne and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He recited this passage:

“[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursu[ed] invariably…evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism, [then it is the] right [of the people]…to [alter and change that] Government, and [] provide new Guards for their future security.”

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New twist in debate over resident duty hours (Part I)

By Brad Segal

Amidst a roller-coaster presidential campaign, on November 4th the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) presented a plan to change resident duty hour limits. That the specifics have largely flown under the radar is perhaps unsurprising given the current news cycle. But the understated revision to, “Resident Duty Hours in The Learning and Working Environment” is the latest twist in a relatively contentious issue within medical education (see 2016 NEJM op-ed vs. responses). The proposal is currently undergoing requisite comment period until December 19. This week I’ll briefly lay out the history of duty hours to help explain the significance of ACGME’s proposal, and I will then go through general empirical arguments for and against such a change. My next post will examine how well these argument hold in light of the most recent data available.

Today the physicians’ training experience immediately following medical school is no longer the whir of dangerous sleep deprivation lampooned in the House of God. Amid mounting evidence that resident sleep deprivation caused medical errors, and under threat of federal legislation, in 2003 the ACGME first introduced national guidelines restricting resident work hours to 80 hours per week (averaged over 4 weeks), and capped residents to 30 hours of continuous in-house call. Then in 2009 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a 427-page report reviewing scientific evidence on resident work hours, sleep deprivation, and fatigue-related errors. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that sleep deprivation significantly impairs most aspects of cognition. Hence the IOM ultimately recommended that residents not exceed 16 hours of continuous work before dedicated rest.

The ACGME subsequently modified duty hour guidelines in 2011 and limited first-year residents (‘interns’) to working 16-hour stretches. The reason ACGME’s most recent proposal is curious, though, is that it back-tracks on the 2011 intern duty-hour limits, raising their in-house cap to 28 hours. In response to this proposal a national advocacy group, Public Citizen, claimed it, “would expose residents, their patients and the general public to the risk of serious injury and death.” Read More

Legal Levers for Health Equity through Housing: A New Research Project

Health equity in housing can be defined as the absence of disadvantage to individuals and communities in health outcomes, access to health and social services, and quality of health and social services based on a person’s dwelling or neighborhood.

Lack of housing access, poor housing conditions, and income or racial segregation all have been shown empirically to cause negative health outcomes. Law has a pervasive role in housing, and has for a long time. Law was instrumental in creating and maintaining segregation through mechanisms like red-lining, restrictive covenants and zoning. The Civil Rights movement brought an end to explicitly discriminatory policies, and new finance and inclusionary zoning policies helped create millions of units of affordable housing, but we still have a long way to go. As Matthew Desmond’s work shows, drastic improvements are needed in how governments enforce housing codes and balance the rights of landlords and tenants. The bottom line is that too many of our people have trouble affording decent housing in neighborhoods with the amenities for healthy living, and too many of our neighborhoods are still segregated.

Our team at the Center for Public Health Law Research has been selected as a research hub in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action Program. For the next 20 months, we will be using empirical research and legal scholarship to analyze the housing crisis through the lens of law. We know that law shapes environments and behaviors, so we are searching for the links between laws, their intended and unintended effects on the housing market, and the health outcomes that follow. We will be bringing a focus on law and its mechanisms to a field rich in policy research. Our aim is to investigate how law influences health equity in housing, and offer recommendations about how it can be a lever for greater equity. We hope to engage the community of non-profits, advocacy groups, policy think-tanks, and social scientists who are working on identifying problems and finding solutions, as well as the community of legal scholars and litigators working on housing issues. In our recommendations we plan on both identifying steps to incrementally advance housing equity through existing law, and envisioning creative changes to the legal framework itself.

We are excited to engage the housing policy and the law community in a discussion about legal levers for health equity through housing. We also look forward to sharing our work with you as we go, here and on the Policies for Action website. Please stay tuned!

If you are interested in continuing this discussion please reach out to Abraham Gutman at Abraham.gutman@temple.edu

Organs and Overdoses: The Numbers (Part I)

By Brad Segal

The surging opioid epidemic is a threat to the nation’s public health. This year the CDC reported that mortality from drug overdose reached an all-time high, with the annual death toll more than doubling since 2000. Yet in the backdrop of this epidemic, the country also faces ongoing shortages of a different sort–too few organs for transplantation. Every day, approximately 22 people die while waiting for an organ to become available. To some it is not a surprise–or at least not inconceivable–that the fastest-growing source of organ donors is being fueled by the national spike in drug overdoses. This first post will help delineate the scope and scale of the situation. My follow-up will discuss the ethical considerations and ramifications for public policy.

To start: the numbers. The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) makes domestic transplant data publicly available online, which currently extends from 1994 to September 30th, 2016. Two decades ago, 29 organ donors died from a drug overdose.* In just the first nine months of this year, that number has climbed to 888 donors. Even with a quarter of the calendar year left to be counted, 2016 has already surpassed previous record set in 2015 (Figure 1).

figure-1
Figure 1

One might question whether this trend is an illusion–perhaps a rise in the incidence of donors who had overdosed reflects an increasing number of transplants. But the data suggest the opposite. Also plotted in Figure 1, the percentage of total organ donors who died from overdose (maroon diamonds, right-sided Y axis) has not remained constant–instead, the percentage has steadily increased. Two decades ago, overdose caused the deaths of 0.6% of all organ donors; this year, it is the cause of death among 12.0% of organ donors nationwide. The rising percentage means that not only are more victims of drug overdose donating organs, but that the pool of organ donors is increasingly composed of such individuals. Read More

Health Care Politics in the US South

by Emma Sandoe

Courtesy of Vanderbilt Center for Medicine, Health, and Society http://www.vanderbilt.edu/mhs/the-politics-of-health-in-the-u-s-south/

This month I attended the Politics of Health Care in the US South conference held at Vanderbilt. This conference was cosponsored by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest. Instead of a lengthy conference summary, I’ll attempt to capture some of the key lessons I learned to better understand the politics of the South.

What is the South?

There is no other region of the country with such a strong personal identification and complex emotional reaction as the South. Californians don’t identify as “Westerners;” “New Englander” inspires connotations of sleepy scenes of snow and hot chocolate; and while you may get a rare character that strongly identifies as a “Midwesterner,” there is a clear difference in the passion that a Minnesotan speaks of their homeland compared to a Tennessean. But despite the fact that the words “the South” strikes passion in its residents, historical and modern important moments in our nations conversation on race, and a specific cultural identity, there is really no common definition of the geographic South. Modern politics make the inclusion of Maryland and DC counter to our understanding of the deep red political vote. Texas and Florida have their own unique identities and their vast populations often skew any analysis of the region. Each unique issue in the South first requires a definition of what geographic region you are discussing.

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Thought about Breastfeeding and Civil Liberties

Breastfeeding is known for being an extremely politicized issue. Past decades introduced us to different interest groups advocating for and against the ideal of “Breast is best”. A recent book by Courtney Jung called ‘Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy’ describes how the ideal of breastfeeding became a focal point of consensus among conflicting political groups like environmentalists and capitalists, leftists and conservatives and many more. The book reveals troubling regulatory schemes which sanction non-breastfeeding moms by denying benefits and iron rich food for their babies. This pattern of body governance echoes Dorothy Roberts’ book ‘Killing the Black Body’ which described how procreation decisions made by poor-black-women, are constantly sanctioned and regulated by the state in order to achieve social objectives, for example, by conditioning welfare benefits in an installation of permanent contraceptives.

In Roberts’ book, a clear distinction is made with respect to the reproductive liberty of black and white women. The contraceptive pill, which symbolizes the emblem of reproductive freedom and is highly identified with the feminist movement, was the product of a scientific endeavor greatly motivated by conservative groups’ desire to control population through family planning schemes, historically targeting the fertility of poor black women. In a similar way, the ideal of “breast is best” has also been operating differently with respect to race and economic status. In Linda Blum’s bookAt the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in Contemporary United States’ she conducts interviews with women who didn’t nurse. She found that in contrast to white women who strove for outer respectability and experienced their lack of breastfeeding as a failure to conform with the breastfeeding imperative, black women emphasized their use in feeding instruments as significant for their independence which was highly evaluated. Accordingly, statistics show generally lower breastfeeding rates among black women in the US.

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New Developments in the Guatemala STD Experiments Case

In the late 1940s, US government scientists, in collaboration with Guatemalan counterparts, were involved in a horrible array of experiments on human subjects in which a variety of vulnerable groups in Guatemala were intentionally infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid and left without treatment. [For more on how they ended up in Guatemala and the ethics of intentional infection studies, see my work here and here.] The experiments were done without consent and without scientific rigor, violating both contemporaneous and modern ethical standards.  They were not uncovered, however, until a few years ago when a historian discovered the files in the midst of doing archival research on one of the scientists, who had also been involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study in the US.

Since her discovery, the US and Guatemalan governments have both issued apologies and reports condemning the studies (here and here), and the US pledged a relatively small amount of money to support the Guatemalan government’s efforts to improve surveillance and control of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases in that country. However, individual compensation to the victims of the experiments and their families has not been forthcoming; the victims calls for a voluntary compensation program to be established have gone unheeded, and they have also been unable to prevail in court, for a variety of jurisdictional and technical reasons.

As Glenn Cohen and I argued following the victims’ first court loss in 2012, compensation is a moral imperative.  We expressed support for a voluntary compensation program, but in its absence, alternative mechanisms of justice are essential.  Therefore, we were heartened to hear that a petition for the victims was just filed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala, represented by the UC Irvine School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and The City Project of Los Angeles.  The petition claims violations of the rights to life, health, freedom from torture, and crimes against humanity under both the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the denial of a right to a remedy for human rights violations.

There are still a number of hurdles ahead, not the least of which is determining which individuals would actually be entitled to compensation, as the record keeping in the initial experiments was so poor and so much time has passed.  But we are heartened that advocates are still pressing forward for these victims and hope that justice, though certainly delayed, will not continue to be denied.

More information on the petition is available here.

Premiums in Medicaid: The (not so) Recent Trend

By Emma Sandoe

Requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to pay premiums and other cost-sharing for medical services is not new to the Medicaid expansion debate. Premiums were introduced as part of the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Previously, states were prohibited from imposing enrollment fees, premiums, or deductibles for any categorically eligible individual in the Medicaid program. This law allowed states to implement minimal cost-sharing for waiver demonstrations, but prohibited states from denying medical care due to an inability to pay.

Since this law was passed, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has clarified that certain populations including pregnant women and children were exempt from most cost-sharing. Additionally, certain services are exempt from copayments and coinsurance entirely. The maximum amount that can be charged varies based on wage and type of service and where the beneficiary seeks treatment.

Prior to Indiana’s 1115, approved in 2014, CMS did not allow state waivers to charge premiums to individuals making under 50% of the federal poverty line (FPL). Indiana’s expansion plan is unlike any other state’s waiver plans. It requires individuals to pay a “monthly contribution” of $1 a month or 2% of a family’s income which ever is greater. When a beneficiary that has been paying these monthly contributions uses medical services, they are not required to pay co-payments. Previously, Indiana lowered the income eligibility for premiums during its 2013 waiver when it required premiums for individuals making between 50-100% of FPL. Arkansas and Iowa saw that precedent set by Indiana and lowered their cost sharing levels from 100% of FPL to 50%. Read More

The Once and Future Cadillac Tax

cadillacOver the last few weeks, health economists have been defending the often politically friendless “Cadillac Tax.” This policy, as part of the Affordable Care Act, will begin taxing certain generous health insurance plans starting in 2018. Since World War II, the IRS has held that employer-sponsored health insurance should not been taxed, costing the federal government $329 billion in lost federal revenue. But, the most pivotal decision in the tax exemption status of employer-sponsored health insurance took place in 1954, not during World War II.

In 1954, when Congress extended the World War II provisions into permanent tax law, Congress decided to do away with the limits imposed on the tax-free status of health insurance. In essence, Congress has already repealed the Cadillac tax back when you could buy a new Cadillac for $5,000.

The Introduction of the Tax:

As part of the World War II price and wage controls, President Roosevelt’s National War Labor Board first put limits on wage increases and would not allow wages to increase greater than 15 percent of 1941 rates. Enterprising employers began offering health insurance coverage to recruit workers, because enticing workers with higher wages was not permitted. This forced the hand of the Board to address the tax status of health insurance.

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