Field hospital in NY during COVID-19 pandemic.

Ethical and Legal Challenges Faced by Hospitals in New York’s First COVID-19 Surge

By Zachary E. Shapiro

After COVID-19 reached the United States, New York City quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic. Clinicians at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center turned to the Clinical Ethics Consultation Service to help meet the ethical challenges that arose. During the surge, the Ethics Team saw a marked increase in the volume of consultations for individual patients in the hospital, and took part in over 2,500 informal consultations with caregivers. Discussions centered around a wide range of ethical issues distinct from those that come up in routine practice. As one of the only lawyers in the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College, I encountered a myriad of legal concerns presented by the pandemic.

During the height of the surge in New York, there was no formal legal guidance available to clinicians concerning medical practice during a pandemic. Questions about legal immunity abounded, as unclear state and federal guidance left many doctors worried that they were taking personal and professional risks by providing care to COVID-19 patients.

The pandemic forced doctors to shift away from traditional standards of care in terms of resuscitation, patient care, and surrogate decision-making. The ethics team had to take new dynamics into account, such as the risk of infection to doctors and staff, and balance these factors in the risk/benefit calculations for treatments and interventions. Undertaking these shifts without federal or state guidance caused significant distress and concern. It often seemed that the law was not only not helpful, but an active hindrance to medical practice, as many health care workers were consumed by worry about the prospect of future liability. This concern persisted, even though the deviations in the standard of practice were necessitated by the realities of the pandemic overwhelming our health care system.

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Medicine law concept. Gavel and stethoscope on book close up

Free Online Ethics Resources Available from the Perelman School of Medicine

By Holly Fernandez Lynch

One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic has been seeing communities come together to offer support in ways big and small. Individuals are organizing drives to collect personal protective equipment for health care workers, media outlets are making pandemic content available for free, and children’s book authors are hosting online story times to offer a brief respite for parents suddenly thrust into homeschooling.

In that same spirit, the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania is hoping to ease the burden for bioethics faculty and bioethics and health professions students who may be in search of online content as their learning experiences have moved out of the brick-and-mortar classroom. We’re offering a variety of recorded video content in clinical and research ethics at no charge through at least June 30 – with lectures from two Petrie-Flom alums, Holly Fernandez Lynch and Emily A. Largent, as well as other faculty experts.

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Understanding the Neuroscience and Philosophy of Consciousness

By Yusuf Lenfest

Think of the last few times you’ve had a very lifelike dream. Running, reading, or having conversations with others, are all activities that might happen during a particularly vivid dream. But would this be considered consciousness? Surely being in a state of sleep is not the same as being in a waking state; but if you are able to communicate, to attend a lecture, perhaps even to give a lecture whilst you sleep, what does this mean in terms of your brain’s activity? Very deep in the sleep cycle, a person may not respond immediately to touch or sound or any other sensory stimulus. That is, they may not wake up, though it cannot be ruled out that an external stimulus might influence the sub-conscious mind and hence their dream. We’ve all had the experience of hearing an alarm “in our dream” which is really our real alarm, yet our mind re-interprets it and incorporates it into our dream until we regain consciousness, i.e., wake up. What if you couldn’t wake up from your unconscious state? And if so, what would this mean for how your brain processes your thoughts? In effect, what would it mean for your lived reality if you could only live in your mind?

Beyond being a fun thought experiment, these may be some very relevant questions now that doctors have treated a vegetative-state patient with an experimental therapy leading him to regain partial consciousness.

It was reported yesterday in National Geographic, Popular Science, the Guardian, and elsewhere that a 35-year-old man who had been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 15 years has shown signs of consciousness after receiving a pioneering therapy involving nerve stimulation. The French researchers reported their findings to the journal Current Biology. Led by Angela Sirigu, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, a team of clinicians tried an experimental form of therapy called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) which involves implanting a device into the chest designed to stimulate the vagus nerve. It works by giving off miniscule electrical shocks to the vagus nerve, a critical brain signal that interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.

So again, what does it mean to be conscious?

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General Medical Practice: Complaint Handling Issues

By John Tingle

There is a new report from Health Service Ombudsman (HSO) on GP (General Medical Practitioner) complaint handling and major failings are revealed. The HSO makes the final decisions on complaints that have not been resolved in England and lies at the apex of the NHS complaints system. The report reveals that some GP practices are failing to handle patient complaints properly. The report is based on evidence from HSO casework files and intelligence gathered by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) , NHS England and Healthwatch England. One hundred and thirty-seven closed complaint cases from November 2014 – November 2015 were analysed. General medical practice forms 90% of all NHS interactions with the general public.The quality of complaint handling by GPs was found to be highly variable:

“…over half of the cases were either good (46%) or outstanding (9%). However, over a third required improvement (36%) and a tenth were inadequate (10%) (p7).”

The report states that there are five areas where general practice has the most scope for improvement: Read More

Art Caplan on Companies Paying for Egg Freezing

Over at Medscape, Art Caplan has a new video critiquing some companies’ new policies to pay for women to freeze their eggs:

Facebook and Apple recently announced a new perk for female workers. They will pay to freeze their eggs, a benefit that has sparked an appropriate ethical controversy.

There is no doubt that some women at these companies will think it is a great benefit, and they are glad to have it. But I am afraid that things aren’t so simple.

Part of the reason that those companies offer egg freezing is that they don’t want women distracted from their careers by having children. One way to manage both career and motherhood is to freeze your eggs. But freezing eggs is not simple, nor is the choice to do so…

Watch the full video here.