Person smoking cigarette.

Should Smokers be Prioritized for COVID Vaccine?

Cross-posted from Harvard Law Today, where it originally appeared on February 2, 2021. 

By Jeff Neal

Should smoking be among the pre-existing health risks that qualify people for priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine? In a Zoom interview with Harvard Law Today, public health expert Carmel Shachar J.D./M.P.H. ’10 says the answer is yes. 

CDC guidelines, which most states are following as they launch mass vaccination programs, say people with certain underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk for hospitalization or death if they contract COVID-19 (also known as co-morbidities) should receive access to the vaccine before the general population. In Massachusetts, these individuals will be eligible to receive the vaccine in Group 4 of Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination rollout plan. But many have been surprised to see smoking listed among the qualifying conditions, alongside cancer and heart disease.

Shachar, the executive director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, says that smoking is often the result of structural and biological factors that make it more prevalent in historically marginalized communities, and that denying priority access for smokers would reinforce existing inequities. More practically, she says, “every time a person gets vaccinated, it’s good for the community.” 

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Petrie-Flom Center logo.

Call for Applications: Research Fellow for Diagnostic Digital Home Health

Overview

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School is hiring a full-time post-doctoral fellow to support its newly launched Diagnostic Digital Home Health initiative. This position will likely be a three year commitment.

This sponsored research project examines the ethical, social, and legal challenges of digital home health products, with a focus on home diagnosis of infectious and chronic conditions. This project will develop scholarship, guidelines, and proposed regulations for the ethical implementation of these products, using focus groups, virtual workshops, and interdisciplinary scholarship, with a focus on considerations of access and equity, social interconnectedness, and patient privacy.

Previous Petrie-Flom Center post-doctoral fellows have used their positions as successful launching pads for tenure-track legal, health policy, and bioethics academic careers. Our most recent post-doctoral fellow has published in leading journals such as JAMA, Science, and the Journal of Law and the Biosciences. She has been interviewed as an expert in biomedical regulation by media outlets such as Forbes and Lancet Digital Health and presented to regulators at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Busy Nurse's Station In Modern Hospital

What’s in a Name? The Value of the Term ‘Never Events’

By John Tingle 

The Healthcare Safety Inspection Branch (HSIB) in England, which conducts independent investigations of patient safety concerns relating to the country’s National Health Service (NHS), has just published a learning report that examines the findings of investigations they have carried out on incidents classified as “Never Events.”

England’s NHS defines Never Events as “patient safety incidents that are wholly preventable,” in accordance with the implementation of “guidance or safety recommendations that provide strong systemic protective barriers.”

In the National Health Service’s policy and framework, Never Events are listed under the following headings: surgical, medication, mental health, and general. These headings include incidents such as overdose of certain medications, failure to remove a foreign object used during a procedure, and transfusion of incompatible blood.

The investigations for the HSIB report cover seven of the 15 types of Never Events listed in the National Health Service (NHS) Never Events policy and framework published in 2018. These seven categories account for over 96% of the total Never Events recorded in 2018 – 2019.

Controversially, the HSIB report recommends that NHS England and NHS Improvement revise the Never Events list to remove several which don’t have “strong and systemic safety barriers.” “These events,” the report states, “are therefore not wholly preventable and do not fit the current definition of Never Events.”

This suggestion is, arguably, not in the spirit of advancing the patient safety agenda in the NHS in England.

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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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Empty hospital bed.

New Data Reignites Concerns over COVID-19 and Nursing Homes in New York State

By James W. Lytle 

Concerns over New York State’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with respect to its treatment of nursing homes, have recently re-emerged in light of a new report and court ruling related to the matter.

Almost from the outset of the pandemic, the State faced scrutiny as to whether it was accurately reporting deaths of nursing home patients.

After nursing homes complained in April about the lack of PPE and other resources to combat the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo responded that it was not the state’s responsibility, and asked the Department of Health and the Attorney General to launch investigations into nursing homes’ response to the pandemic.

Nine months later, in late January 2021, the report by New York State Attorney General Letitia James of the nursing home investigation was released.

Among the report’s headlines, the Attorney General’s preliminary analysis found that the Department of Health had undercounted deaths of nursing home residents due to COVID-19 by about 50%, largely because of the failure of the State to count the deaths of those residents who were transferred to hospitals immediately prior to their deaths. No other state excluded patients who had been transferred before death to hospitals from their nursing home fatality reports.

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Image of a gavel and stethoscope on top of each other

Reflections on Recent Medicaid Reform Efforts

By Abe Sutton

In the context of limited regulatory resources, Trump’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) prioritized allowing states to impose work requirements over Medicaid fiscal reform.

Now that the Trump Administration’s term in office has ended, it is worth exploring, with the benefit of hindsight, the value of this decision. Setting aside moral arguments used to criticize Medicaid work requirements, administering the requirements proved to be challenging, as did justifying them in court. Additionally, amid indications Medicaid work requirements will not be politically sustainable, it is worth considering whether Medicaid fiscal reform would have led to more significant taxpayer savings.

In this post, I provide an overview of Medicaid work requirements and explore some of the reforms included in the Medicaid fiscal reform proposal CMS ultimately chose not to implement.

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Baby shoes.

Infants Born Through Surrogacy Contracts Cannot Be Canceled or Returned

By Katherine Drabiak

Recently, media reported that Zheng Shuang, a popular Chinese actress, commissioned two surrogates with boyfriend Zhang Hang, and then allegedly decided, seven months into the pregnancies, that she did not want to become a parent and questioned the possibility of abortion or adoption.

Zhang asserts that he has been caring for the infants in the U.S. for more than a year after Zheng abandoned the infants. Zheng has not addressed the allegations directly, and multiple facts remain unclear.

This case, and other rare similar cases, raise the question: If intended parents initiate an agreement with a gestational surrogate to create a child, can they also terminate the agreement – and pregnancy – if they no longer want the resulting child?

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Doctor or surgeon with organ transport after organ donation for surgery in front of the clinic in protective clothing.

Recent Organ Procurement Organization Regulations Will Save Lives

By Matthew Wadsworth

Thirty-three Americans die every day for lack of an organ transplant. As the CEO of an organ procurement organization (OPO) — one of the network of 57 government contractors responsible for organ recovery across the country — this is what I think about every day: how to help the 3,000 people waiting in my home state of Ohio and the more than 100,000 others around the country who wake up each morning hoping they get a call that a transplant is available.

Fortunately, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently published new, pro-patient regulations to bring baseline accountability to OPOs. While some of my peers have opposed the reform effort, I see it as long overdue.

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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.

Weaknesses in Medical Device Regulation Worsened by Trump Administration

By Jacob Howard

In the waning days of the Trump administration, a final push was made to fundamentally weaken regulation of medical devices.

Lambasted as a “full frontal assault on public health” by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials, key policy changes include proposed emergency exemptions to bring a multitude of devices to market without the necessary scientific backing. Justified as a strategy to expedite the delivery of life-saving products, this speed comes at a risk to millions of patients.

As the third most prevalent cause of death in the U.S., medical error continues to be a critical issue that is exacerbated by weakening integrity of the regulatory process. This issue is further compounded by the fact that past regulatory failures in the medical device sphere have not been adequately addressed. The surgical stapler offers an illustrative example.

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