Vials of medications with syringe and needle.

Is “Implied Consent” Ethically Permissible in WHO’s Malaria Vaccine Pilot Introduction?

By Beatrice Brown

A recent BMJ article has exposed ethical concerns with the informed consent process in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) large, randomized cluster trial of the world’s first licensed malaria vaccine, RTS,S, known as Mosquirix. The study is being conducted in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya, and 720,000 children will receive the vaccine. The vaccine is currently limited to pilot implementation because of residual safety concerns from previous clinical trials, including: a tenfold rate of meningitis in those who received the vaccine versus those who did not, “increased cerebral malaria cases, and a doubling in the risk of death in girls.” Rather than engaging in the traditional informed consent process, the WHO is utilizing an implied consent process, leading several bioethicists, including Charles Weijer, Christine Stabell Benn, and Jonathan Kimmelman, to voice concern.

The WHO has defended their use of implied consent to BMJ on the grounds that “the study is a ‘pilot introduction’ and not a ‘research activity.'” A WHO spokesperson explained that in an implied consent process, “parents are informed of imminent vaccination through social mobilisation and communication, sometimes including letters directly addressed to parents. Subsequently, the physical presence of the child or adolescent, with or without an accompanying parent at the vaccination session, is considered to imply consent.” However, as Weijer rightly points out, this is not truly consent, as “We have no assurance that parents, in fact, received information about the study let alone that they understood it.” After the publication of the original article criticizing the WHO for going against international ethical standards for research involving human participants, the WHO released a response in BMJ and on their own website, contending that this implied consent process is “used for all vaccines provided through the Expanded Programme on Immunization” and that the study is in accordance with international ethical standards. Here, I further explore whether this implied consent process is ethically permissible in this specific trial by exploring the guidelines set out by two organizations.

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Can Bedside Consent Apps Improve Informed Consent During Childbirth?

By Alexa Richardson

Informed consent in childbirth is under fire by advocates, who stress that there is a widespread absence of meaningful informed consent during birth. While informed consent in medical settings always poses challenges, informed consent in childbirth raises particular concerns. Labor unfolds in real-time, and people are heavily reliant on their provider for information during birth. Providers may not adequately seek informed consent out of a belief that they should make decisions in the fetal interest, rather than the parent. Furthermore, laboring people make choices that are more than medical: birth is a value-laden process entwined with beliefs about parenting, life-meaning, and fetal interests.  A new solution is on the table that could help improve the process of informed consent in childbirth: guided decision-making apps. This year, multiple mobile apps are in the works that would assist laboring people and clinicians in real-time decision-making during labor and birth.

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Surrealist black and white photograph of a person wearing a bowler hat and button down shirt. Ther person's face is obscured totally by a tiny cloud

DNA Phenotyping Experiment on Uighurs Raises Ethical Questions About Informed Consent

By Beatrice Brown

On December 3, The New York Times broke shocking news: China has been using the DNA of Uighurs, a Muslim minority group who have been facing increased persecution, to create an image of a person’s face using a process called DNA phenotyping. The Uighur men were living in Tumxuk (a city in the Xinjiang region), which The New York Times notes being described by Chinese state news media as “one of the gateways and major battlefields for Xinjiang’s security work.” The New York Times introduced many troubling ethical issues, including the potential for increased social surveillance and thus increased “state discrimination” of this vulnerable ethnic minority, but here, I wish to focus on the issue of informed consent.

Informed consent is essential to conducting ethical research. Premised on respecting the autonomy of participants, informed consent requires that participants understand the research that they are consenting to be involved in, including potential risks and benefits of the research. However, what exactly constitutes true, valid informed consent to research is a contentious issue. There are two concerns about the validity of the informed consent process in this DNA phenotyping experiment. Read More

Blurred image of a patient in critical condition in the ICU ward.

“An Act Improving Medical Decision Making:” An Argument in Favor of MA House Bill 3388 and Senate Bill 843

By Beatrice Brown

On September 10, 2019, the Joint Committee on Judiciary at the Massachusetts State House heard testimony regarding House Bill 3388 and Senate Bill 843, “An Act Improving Medical Decision Making.” The Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) was among those testifying in favor of the act. As noted by MMS, Massachusetts is one of only five states in the U.S. that does not have a default surrogate consent statute for incapacitated patients without a health care proxy. The intent of a default surrogate consent statute is “to provide legal authority for health care decision-making through a non-judicial rule of law where no guardian or agent had been appointed.”

Without such a statute in place, this means that a patient who is incapacitated and has not declared a health care proxy must await treatment while a guardian is appointed by the courts. This may be a lengthy, time-consuming process that physically drains hospitals’ resources and emotionally drains families. By contrast, these default surrogate consent statutes establish a list of surrogates that can be appointed by physicians to make decisions in lieu of the incapacitated patient. For example, in the Massachusetts bills, the following persons are listed as candidates who may be appointed as surrogates: the person’s spouse, unless legally separated; the person’s adult child; the person’s parent; the person’s adult sibling; and any other adult who satisfies the requirement of subdivision seven of the bill which states, “The person’s surrogate shall be an adult who has exhibited special care and concern for the person, who is familiar with the person’s personal values, who is reasonably available, and who is willing to serve.” Read More

Photograph of a woman lying in a hospital bed holding her newborn wrapped in a blanket

Where Are the Legal Protections for People Mistreated in Childbirth?

By Alexa Richardson

A new study indicates that 28.1% of women birthing in U.S. hospitals experienced mistreatment by providers during labor, with rates even higher for women of color. The multi-stakeholder study, convened in response to World Health Organization efforts to track maternal mistreatment, included more than 2,000 participants, and defined mistreatment as including one or more occurrences of: loss of autonomy; being shouted at, scolded, or threatened; or being ignored, refused, or receiving no response to requests for help. The study newly highlights the lack of legal protections available to for pregnant and birthing people who experience these kinds of mistreatment by providers.

Campaigns like Exposing the Silence have chronicled the outpouring of people’s harrowing birth stories, riddled with abuse and violations of consent. In one typical account, a user named Chastity explained:

I had a room full of student doctors, an OB I never met come in and forcibly give me extremely painful cervical exams while I screamed for them to stop and tried to get away. They had a nurse come and hold me down. There was at least 10 students practicing on me. I was a teen mom and my partner hadn’t gotten off work yet so I was all alone.

Another user named Abriana recounted:

As I was pushing, I got on my side and it was then that I started to feel pain much different from labor pains. I asked, ‘What is going on?’ The nurse replied, ‘I am doing a perineal rub.’ I immediately said, ‘Please stop doing that. You are hurting me.’ The nurse argued, ‘It will help you’ and didn’t move. I asked her again to please stop. I then yelled, while pushing, ‘Get your hands out of me!’ The nurse continued.

The traditional modes of seeking legal recourse have little to offer those who experience these kinds of mistreatment.

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Photograph of a doctor holding a headset sitting in front of a laptop

Navigating Sensitive Hospital Conversations in the Age of Telemedicine

By Adriana Krasniansky

On March 5, 2019, a terminally ill patient from Fremont, California, learned that he was expected to die within several days. The doctor who delivered the news did so via a robotic video teleconferencing device. 

Ernest Quintana, a 79-year-old patient with a previously-diagnosed terminal lung condition, was taken to the Kaiser Permanente Fremont Medical Center emergency room after reporting shortness of breath. His 16-year-old granddaughter, Annalisia Wilharm, was with him when a nurse stopped by and said that a doctor would visit shortly to deliver Mr. Quintana’s results. 

The video below, recorded by Ms. Wilharm, shows Mr. Quintana’s consultation with a critical care doctor through an Ava Robotics telepresence device—in which the doctor explains Mr. Quintana’s rapidly worsening condition and suggests transitioning to comfort care. Ms. Wilharm and her family chose to share the video with local media and on Facebook, inciting a debate around the legal and ethical challenges of using telemedicine in critical care conversations. 

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Laboratory IVF petri dish under a microscope.

Fertility Fraud: Major Developments in Texas, Idaho, and Indiana

By Jody Lyneé Madeira

Spring of 2019 brought flowers, showers…and many updates on the “fertility fraud” front.

Perhaps the biggest developments are on the legislative front. On May 5, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed Senate Bill 174 into law, creating civil and criminal causes of action for fertility fraud for former patients and their offspring (and donors whose gametes were used in an unconsented-to manner).

Plaintiffs who sue in tort can be reimbursed for the costs of the fertility procedure and $10,000 in damages. The act makes it a level 6 felony to make a misrepresentation involving human reproductive material and a medical procedure, medical device, or drug. Read More

A white hospital hallway

The ‘Nazi Problem’ in Human Subject Research Regulation

As Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day draws near, it is heartening to note that our collective horror against Nazis and Nazism is still sufficiently strong as to make them the archetype evil villains in movies, TV, and dystopian literature. The evil doctor conducting fiendish experiments lives on in fiction because we recall the all-too-real horrific acts of torture conducted by Nazi physicians against children held captive and killed in the millions.

(Here are the Personal Statements of people who survived to tell their stories.)

Yet, as important as it is to never forget these crimes, we should resist the temptation of letting these memories lead us to a false story about the origin of human subject research regulation in the United States. Read More

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Nobody Reads the Terms and Conditions: A Digital Advanced Directive Might Be Our Solution

Could Facebook know your menstruation cycle?

In a recent Op-ed Piece, “You Just Clicked Yes. But, Do you Know Terms and Conditions of that Health App?,” I proposed that a mix of factors have given rise to the need to regulate web-based health services and apps. Since most of these applications do not fall under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), few people actually read through the Terms and Conditions, and also, the explosive growth of web-based health applications, the need for solutions is dire. Read More

What Should Happen to our Medical Records When We Die?

By Jon Cornwall

In the next 200 years, at least 20 billion people will die. A good proportion of these people are going to have electronic medical records, and that begs the question: what are we going to do with all this posthumous medical data? Despite the seemingly logical and inevitable application of medical data from deceased persons for research and healthcare both now and in the future, the issue of how best to manage posthumous medical records is currently unclear.

Presently, large medical data sets do exist and have their own uses, though largely these are data sets containing ‘anonymous’ data. In the future, if medicine is to deliver on the promise of truly ‘personalized’ medicine, then electronic medical records will potentially have increasing value and relevance for our generations of descendants. This will, however, entail the public having to consider how much privacy and anonymity they are willing to part with in regard to information arising from their medical records. After all, enabling our medical records with the power to influence personalized medicine for our descendants cannot happen without knowing who we, or our descendants, actually are.  Read More