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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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

Minneapolis, MN / USA - May 26 2020: Black Lives Matter, "I Can't Breathe" Protest for George Floyd.

Expendable Lives and COVID-19

By Matiangai Sirleaf

Two French doctors recently appeared on television and discussed using African subjects in experimental trials for an antidote to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves. What do you think?” asked Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin Hospital in Paris on April 1, 2020.

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an ambulance parked at the entrance of an emergency department

Racial Disparities Persist in Human Subjects Research

By Beatrice Brown

Human subjects research has long been plagued by racial inequality. While flagrant abuses have been curtailed, disparities have, unfortunately, persisted.

One area ripe for scrutiny is clinical trial enrollment. A 2018 study by William Feldman, Spencer Hey, and Aaron Kesselheim in Health Affairs documents racial disparities in trials that are exempt from typical requirements for informed consent from study participants.

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Box of Hydroxychloroquine Tablets

Human Subjects Research in Emergencies: The Texas Nursing Home “Study” (Part II)

By Jennifer S. Bard

This post is the second in a series about conducting human subjects research in emergencies. These posts are being written in response to a rapidly evolving situation and will reflect the state of knowledge at the time of writing.

In April 2020, Dr. Robin Armstrong, medical director of the Resort, a nursing home in Texas City, Texas, reported “signs of improvement” after he gave hydroxychloroquine, a drug approved by the FDA to treat malaria, to 39 of his nursing home patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19.

At about the same time, information was emerging that now represents the current understanding that hydoxychloroquine isn’t only ineffective in treating COVID-19, but also may cause serious harm to patients. Tensions were raised even higher by the seemingly inexplicable enthusiasm for this treatment by the President and some media outlets.

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Researcher works at a lab bench

Human Subjects Research in Emergencies: An Ethical and Legal Guide (Part I)

By Jennifer S. Bard

This post is the first in a series about conducting human subjects research in emergencies. These posts are being written in response to a rapidly evolving situation and will reflect the state of knowledge at the time of writing.

The world is facing a medical emergency in the form of the rapid spread of a new virus, COVID-19, for which there is no known effective treatment and no preventive vaccine.

Without minimizing the need for haste or the significance of the threat, it is still important to remain aware of the risks inherent in rushing to treat patients with anything that might work and simultaneously conducting the research necessary to identify safety and effective interventions.

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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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Black Lives Matter To Human Research–Lessons From ‘On The Run’

On-the-Run-w-Goffman

By Michele Goodwin

In her recent publication, On The Run, University of Wisconsin sociology professor, Alice Goffman writes about embedded research from 2002-2007 in a “ghetto” community she names 6th Street (located in Philadelphia).  The African American residents of this community are mostly poor and tethered to the  criminal justice system as parolees, on probation, and in and out of jail.  Goffman’s human research subjects comprised the jailed, imprisoned, and minors–IRBs generally describe these populations as “vulnerable.”

On The Run is hailed as original, creative, and transgressive because of Goffman’s lengthy stay in such a descriptively chilling, dangerous, and Black neighborhood–where frequent gun battles teach kids to dive for cover, the women are teen mothers or crack addicted, and law enforcement incessantly polices the community. Indeed, she moves into the neighborhood and lives with three of the 6th Street boys.  Much could be gained from documenting the challenges in such a community, particularly given the troubling patterns of mass incarceration in the U.S.  However, the book raises questions about what represents credibility, quality, and rigor in social science research; the book lacks an index, bibliography, and meaningful citations.  I write about these concerns and more in a forthcoming Texas Law Review essay, which can be found here.

Reviewers lauded the rigor and ignored ethics of the book, agreeing with Goffman’s Princeton advisor, Professor Mitchell Duneier, and his NY Times assessment that  “[t]he level of immersion is really unusual,” because “[s]he got access to the life of the ghetto and came to understand aspects of it we don’t ever get to see.”  Yet, therein resides a significant problem. Fascination with the ghetto and perceptions that life in inner-cities is so bad that researchers can’t possibly expose those human subjects to risks and harms may have blinded the book’s many reviewers to the fact that Black lives matter, including in human research.  It might have also implied a lower standard for rigor; it is rare that an academic book lacks a bibliography and index.  Goffman also destroyed her field notes. These concerns becomes starkly relevant when she writes about her desire and collaboration with “Mike” to kill a man from the neighboring 4th Street.

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