elderly person's hand clasped in young person's hands

Vulnerability Theory and Health Justice

By Matthew B. Lawrence

If we want to understand how changes to the law might affect health outcomes, we must remain mindful that the law not only regulates how we behave in the world as it is, but also shapes the institutions and structures that make the world the way it is.

The dominant theoretical frameworks of classical liberalism and behavioral economics obscure this critical relationship.

In this blog post, I suggest that health justice and vulnerability theory fill this theoretical gap, and serve as invaluable, and largely complementary, frameworks for understanding health law and policy.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 28, 2020: People in Downtown Los Angeles protest the brutal Police killing of George Floyd.

Health Justice: Love, Freedom Dreaming, and Power Building

By Jamila Michener

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

— Cornel West

Simple yet resonant, Cornel West’s rendering of justice draws on an emotion that most people understand on a deep personal level: love. Viewing health justice through the lens of love concretizes it when I am otherwise tempted to treat it as an abstract notion. Love is familiar, intuitive, and tangible. Conceptualizing health justice as a public enactment of love directs my thoughts to the people I cherish most dearly, bringing the reality of the concept into sharp relief.

What do I want for the people I love? Of course, I want them to have access to high-quality health care: primary care doctors, acute care physicians, specialists, nurses, therapists, local hospitals where they will be treated with dignity and much more.

Over and above these features of health care systems, I want the people I love to have the building blocks necessary for healthy living: safe and comfortable housing, nutritious food, supportive social relationships, jobs that offer a living wage, education, freedom from poverty, violence, and exploitation.

Going even further, I want the people I love to have the agency to shape their own lives and the capacity to chart paths in the communities they inhabit. In short, I want them to have power. Power facilitates all the things listed above (i.e., the social determinants of health) on a durable, equitable, and sustainable basis.

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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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Four individuals embracing each other at the waist.

The Communities of Health Justice

By Charlene Galarneau

To the extent that communities are the principal contexts for the social relations and institutions most central to health and health care, then communities should be critical moral actors in determining what constitutes health justice.

I propose that the health justice framework may be fruitfully developed in conversation with community justice, a social justice framework for health and health care that centers communities and their notions of health justice within national standards of justice. As Michael Walzer has observed, “Justice is a human construction, and it is doubtful that it can be made in only one way.”

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

5 Questions About COVID-19 and Religious Exemptions

By Chloe Reichel

On February 26th, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a shadow docket decision that could foretell sweeping limitations for public health measures, both within and outside the COVID-19 pandemic context.

The Court’s ruling in the case, Gateway City Church v. Newsom, blocked a county-level ban on church services, despite the fact that the ban applied across the board to all indoor gatherings. This religious exceptionalism is emerging as a key trend in recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly those related to COVID-19 restrictions.

To better understand what these rulings might mean for public health, free exercise of religion, the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potential vaccine mandates, I spoke with Professor Elizabeth Sepper, an expert in religious liberty, health law, and equality at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

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phone camera

Deep Phenotyping Could Help Solve the Mental Health Care Crisis

By Justin T. Baker

The United States faces a growing mental health crisis and offers insufficient means for individuals to access care.

Digital technologies — the phone in your pocket, the camera-enabled display on your desk, the “smart” watch on your wrist, and the smart speakers in your home — might offer a path forward.

Deploying technology ethically, while understanding the risks of moving too fast (or too slow) with it, could radically extend our limited toolkit for providing access to high-quality care for the many individuals affected by mental health issues for whom the current mental health system is either out of reach or otherwise failing to meet their need.

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Life preserver on boat.

Incidental Findings in Deep Phenotyping Research: Legal and Ethical Considerations

By Amanda Kim, M.D., J.D., Michael Hsu, M.D., Amanda Koire, M.D., Ph.D., Matthew L. Baum, M.D., Ph.D., D.Phil.

What obligations do researchers have to disclose potentially life-altering incidental findings (IFs) as they happen in real time?

Deep phenotyping research in psychiatry integrates an individual’s real-time digital footprint (e.g., texts, GPS, wearable data) with their biomedical data (e.g., genetic, imaging, other biomarkers) to discover clinically relevant patterns, usually with the aid of machine learning. Findings that are incidental to the study’s objectives, but that may be of great importance to participants, will inevitably arise in deep phenotyping research.

The legal and ethical questions these IFs introduce are fraught. Consider three hypothetical cases below of individuals who enroll in a deep phenotyping research study designed to identify factors affecting risk of substance use relapse or overdose:

A 51-year-old woman with alcohol use disorder (AUD) is six months into sobriety. She is intrigued to learn that the study algorithm will track her proximity to some of her known triggers for alcohol relapse (e.g., bars, liquor stores), and asks to be warned with a text message when nearby so she can take an alternative route. Should the researchers share that data?

A 26-year-old man with AUD is two years into sobriety. Three weeks into the study, he relapses. He begins arriving to work inebriated and loses his job. After the study is over, he realizes the researchers may have been able to see from his alcohol use surveys, disorganized text messages, GPS tracking, and sensor data that he may have been inebriated at work, and wishes someone had reached out to him before he lost his job. Should they have?

A 35-year-old man with severe opioid use disorder experiences a near-fatal overdose and is discharged from the hospital. Two weeks later, his smartphone GPS is in the same location as his last overdose, and his wearable detects that his respiratory rate has plummeted. Should researchers call EMS? Read More

Pen hovering over words "I agree" with check box next to it.

Unique Challenges to Informed Consent in Deep Phenotyping Research

By Benjamin C. Silverman

Deep phenotyping research procedures pose unique challenges to the informed consent process, particularly because of the passive and boundless nature of the data being collected and how this data collection overlaps with our everyday use of technology.

As detailed elsewhere in this symposium, deep phenotyping in research involves the collection and analysis of multiple streams of behavioral (e.g., location, movement, communications, etc.) and biological (e.g., imaging, clinical assessments, etc.) data with the goal to better characterize, and eventually predict or intervene upon, a number of clinical conditions.

Obtaining voluntary competent informed consent is a critical aspect to conducting ethical deep phenotyping research. We will address here several challenges to obtaining informed consent in deep phenotyping research, and describe some best practices and relevant questions to consider.

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Person typing on computer.

Lessons Learned from Deep Phenotyping Patients with Rare Psychiatric Disorders

By Catherine A Brownstein and Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich

Given the potential sensitivities associated with describing (i.e., phenotyping) patients with potentially stigmatizing psychiatric diagnoses, it is important to acknowledge and respect the wishes of the various parties involved.

The phenotypic description and depiction of a patient in the literature, although deidentified, may still be of great impact to a family.

By way of example, a novel genetic variant was identified as a likely explanation for the clinical presentation of a patient in a large cohort of individuals with neurodevelopmental and/or psychiatric phenotypes, a finding of great medical interest. The research team elected to further study this candidate and collected samples for functional evaluation of the gene variant and preparation of a case report.

Because the patient had a complicated phenotype, several physicians from various specialties were involved in the patient’s care. The paper draft was circulated amongst the collaborating clinicians and researchers and ultimately shared with the patient’s family by one of their involved caregivers. This is typically not a requirement of such studies, as the informed consent process includes the subjects’ understanding and consent for dissemination of deidentified results in the scientific literature. But as a general practice, families are informed about manuscripts in process, and in this case the family had requested to be kept abreast of ongoing developments.

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doctor holding clipboard.

“Actionability” and the Ethics of Communicating Results to Study Participants

By Patrick Monette

To what end does a physician have a responsibility toward a research participant? Specifically, what data may be considered “actionable” for the physician to disclose to the patient, and when and how might this be done?

In the clinical setting, contemporary medical ethics address a physician’s “fiduciary responsibility.” That is, there is a well-established professional expectation that the physician will place the patient’s interests above their own and advocate for their welfare. This post focuses on an alternative dyad, that of physician and research participant, to explore how the field has broached the topic of actionability in the setting of clinical research. Read More