Monday, December 22, 2003

British Medical Association's call for review of medical ethics training.

As reported in today's Scotsman, the British Medical Association today (i) published an 800-page 2nd edition of Medical Ethics Today, and (ii) called for a government-funded review of how effectively ethics and basic law are being taught in medical schools and how the system can be improved. A table of contents and a sample chapter are available from the BMA's web site and can be ordered here. It's a pricey paperback (£60) and they charge £18 for shipping to the US - converted to $US the total comes to about $134.42. You can get it for the same £60 but for a lot less in shipping charges through Amazon-UK.
posted by Tom Mayo, 1:26 PM | link

Sunday, December 21, 2003

There’s a Blurry Line Between Rx and O.T.C.

Interesting piece by Gina Kolata on the way prescription meds get reclassified for over-the-counter sales. The article accurately states:
At the heart of its decisions, the FDA says, are straightforward scientific and medical questions. Is there a low potential for abuse or misuse? Can consumers use it for self-diagnosed conditions? Can the drug be adequately labeled? Are doctors needed for its safe and effective use?
It also says:
The decision to sell a drug by prescription, experts say, may involve factors that have nothing to do with science or patient safety. Marketing and financial considerations, politics, doctors' concerns and consumer psychology all may play a role.
How can both statements be true? Consider the morning-after pill, which an expert panel has recommended to FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan be made available as an OTC drug, and the competing social agendas at work:
If the morning-after pill were sold over the counter, doctors who opposed the change said at the F.D.A. hearing, teenagers would avoid counseling on responsible sexual behavior. Some also said that making the drug over the counter would interfere with their relationship with their patients. Those favoring the change said that teenagers are going to have unprotected sex in any case and needed a safe way to avoid pregnancy.
And then there's the impact of insurance:
In other cases, straightforward commercial considerations can determine how a company wants a drug classified. For example, drug manufacturers know that patients with drug coverage often prefer prescriptions to paying the full cost of over-the-counter drugs.

Doctors say they see this insurance effect all the time. Dr. James Osborne, an internist in Greensboro, N.C., says when patients with occasional heartburn ask for a prescription for Nexium, he often suggests they buy Pepsid, which costs 24 cents a day for the four pills needed to equal prescription strength, or about 17 times less than Nexium. "They say, 'It doesn't matter, doc. I have a drug card,' " Dr. Osborne said.
You can stay abreast of developments in the drug field by monitoring the home page of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, which also features a handy daily or weekly e-mail update service. There's also an OTC information page there.
posted by Tom Mayo, 9:55 AM | link

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

More on medical marijuana.

Angel McClary Raich, one of the successful plaintiffs (on appeal) in yesterday's ruling by the 9th Circuit (see below) has her own website, "Angel's Fight to Stay Alive" with tons of background information.
posted by Tom Mayo, 1:54 PM | link

Medical marijuana use survives US Controlled Substances Act.

The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit yesterday ruled that the federal government lacked the authority under the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution to criminalize the individual use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The court's opinion is here (FindLaw) and here (court's web site). In most constitutional law cases, the facts are everything. Here is the court's recitation of the facts in this case:
B. Factual Background

Appellants Angel McClary Raich and Diane Monson (the “patient appellants”) are California citizens who currently use marijuana as a medical treatment. Appellant Raich has been diagnosed with more than ten serious medical conditions, including an inoperable brain tumor, life-threatening weight loss, a seizure disorder, nausea, and several chronic pain disorders. Appellant Monson suffers from severe chronic back pain and constant, painful muscle spasms. Her doctor states that these symptoms are caused by a degenerative disease of the spine. Raich has been using marijuana as a medication for over five years, every two waking hours of every day. Her doctor contends that Raich has tried essentially all other legal alternatives and all are either ineffective or result in intolerable side effects; her doctor has provided a list of thirty-five medications that fall into the latter category alone. Raich’s doctor states that foregoing marijuana treatment may be fatal. Monson has been using marijuana as a medication since 1999. Monson’s doctor also contends that alternative medications have been tried and are either ineffective or produce intolerable side effects. As the district court put it: “Traditional medicine has utterly failed these women . . . .”

Appellant Monson cultivates her own marijuana. Raich is unable to cultivate her own. Instead, her two caregivers, appellants John Doe Number One and John Doe Number Two, grow it for her. These caregivers provide Raich with her
marijuana free of charge. They have sued anonymously in order to protect Raich’s supply of medical marijuana. In growing marijuana for Raich, they allegedly use only soil, water, nutrients, growing equipment, supplies and lumber originating from or manufactured within California. Although these caregivers cultivate marijuana for Raich, she processes some of the marijuana into cannabis oils, balm, and foods.

On August 15, 2002, deputies from the Butte County Sheriff’s Department and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) came to Monson’s home. The sheriff’s deputies concluded that Monson’s use of marijuana was legal under the Compassionate Use Act. However, after a three-hour standoff involving the Butte County District Attorney and the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California, the DEA agents seized and destroyed Monson’s six cannabis plants.
The court concluded that this entirely local, entirely intrastate activity of growing and using the pot fell outside the federal government's authority to regulate or criminalize pursuant to its power to regulate interstate commerce. This case will be the talk of Constitutional Law classes all across the country in January. The Commerce Clause has been so expansively interpreted in such a long line of cases over so many decades that any opinion that perceives a limit on Congress' power to regulate commerce will be seen as an outlier, no matter how compelling the facts. Indeed, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of cases (since 1937) in which the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause, and all of them have been decided in the last 10 years. The thinking was that a more conservative Supreme Court thought the activist Congress needed to have its wings clipped so that it wouldn't have a blank check to regulate any activity it wanted to touch, no matter how local and no matter how much it was a subject of traditional state concern.

Now the worm has turned, and the liberal 9th Circuit (the most-reversed court of appeals in the federal system) has used this new view of the Commerce Clause to rule against John Ashcroft's Justice Department and uphold individual marijuana use in these cases. Stay tuned . . . I rather suspect the Department of Justice might want to run this one by SCOTUS. Meanwhile, news reports and commentary can be found on Google News.
posted by Tom Mayo, 1:37 PM | link

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Not-So-Public Relations - How the drug industry is branding itself with bioethics. By Carl Elliott

Carl Elliott from Univ. of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics - an excellent bioethics think tank - has a great commentary on Eli Lilly's efforts to bolster sales of its new and very expensive antisepsis drug, Xigris, through (among other things) its funding of the "Values, Ethics & Rationing in Critical Care Task Force." The story broke with the Wall Street Journal on September 18 (available here with a subscription). Elliott is predictably and properly critical of the potentially insidious influence of corporate dollars -- especially, it seems, Big Pharm's dollars -- on the research agenda and opinions of bioethicists. He concludes:
Somehow corporate-funded bioethicists have not been touched by the bad publicity. Many bioethicists continue to insist that they are learning from their industry relationships and shaping company policy for the better. A task force commissioned by the two major American professional bioethics bodies—the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics—concluded last year that private corporations should be encouraged to seek out paid bioethics consultants, because "bioethics will have an impact on that (corporate) activity only if bioethicists can be part of the dialogue." The task force went on to endorse the practice of bioethicists advertising their own services as private consultants.

So the next time you meet a bioethicist, pay close attention; he may look like a bioethicist, but when you peel back his mask, you just might see the adman smiling back.
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:23 AM | link

Monday, December 08, 2003

Pattern of Mistakes Found in Zoo Deaths (

HealthLawBlog doesn't often cover developments in the world of veterinary medicine, but a two-part Washington Post series on problems at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, is irresistible. Yesterday's article focused on possible areas of malpractice, as well as shoddy record-keeping and medical records that have been altered after the fact, with many links to the documents themselves on the newspaper's web server. Today's article offers more of the same, with an additional, pointed review of the Zoo's oversight by the Smithsonian. Fascinating reading.
posted by Tom Mayo, 12:25 PM | link

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Links to N.Y. Times articles.

Links like the one in the post immediately below are a little iffy. The Times takes articles off its free site after a few days and then limits access based on your ability or willingness to pay. They have relented to some extent, by allowing Dave Winer and USerland to provide stable links to their articles for the benefit of blawgers like me and readers like you. Thus, the Userland link to the article below should be good forever. But I pulled that article up through Google News, and their link, which is the one I used below, uses the same "partner=" format as Userland's link and may be just as stable.

Fortunately, at least with respect to some of their reporting on Medicare, the Times has announced that it will keep their articles in a section of their web site that is free to the public. So -- again, in theory -- the link to the Times' web page for Reed Abelson's piece should be good for a long time, as well. I don't actually believe it and will continue to provide Userland or Google News links until the whole question of stability settles out.
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:17 AM | link

Hospitals Say They’re Penalized by Medicare for Improving Care.

Reed Abelson has an excellent piece in this morning's N.Y. Times about the Medicare prospective payment system (PPS) for reimbursing hospitals for in-patient care. The upshot is that hospitals that creatively and effectively produce the best health outcomes for their patients are often systematically punished by a reimbursement system that pays on the basis of admissions and discharges, rather than outcomes. The lead example in the article is Utah's Intermountain Health Care network, which
says it saves at least 70 lives a year. By giving the right drugs at discharge time to more people with congestive heart failure, Intermountain saves another 300 lives annually and prevents almost 600 additional hospital stays.

But under Medicare, none of these good deeds go unpunished.

Intermountain says its initiatives have cost it millions of dollars in lost hospital admissions and lower Medicare reimbursements. In the mid-90's, for example, it made an average profit of 9 percent treating pneumonia patients; now, delivering better care, it loses an average of several hundred dollars on each case.

"The health care system is perverse," said a frustrated Dr. Brent C. James, who leads Intermountain's efforts to improve quality. "The payments are perverse. It pays us to harm patients, and it punishes us when we don't."
And it's not just the providers who think the system is perverse:
"Right now, Medicare's payment system is at best neutral and, in some cases, negative, in terms of quality — we think that is an untenable situation," said Glenn M. Hackbarth, the chairman of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent panel of economists, health care executives and doctors that advises Congress on such issues as access to care, quality and what to pay health care providers.

In a letter published in the current edition of Health Affairs, a scholarly journal, more than a dozen health care experts, including several former top Medicare officials, urged the program to take the lead in overhauling payment systems so that they reward good care.
Even the departing head of the Medicare program agrees with this assessment: "'It's one of the fundamental problems Medicare faces,' said Thomas A. Scully, who as the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has encouraged better care by such steps as publicizing data about the quality of nursing home and home-health care and by experimenting with programs to reward hospitals for their efforts."
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:14 AM | link

Friday, December 05, 2003

Children's Hospital Bans Smoking by Staff.

I am no fan of the tobacco industry, but I wonder about today's news story that all employees of a children's hospital in Columbus, Ohio, will be barred from smoking anywhere on the "sprawling hospital grounds" effective May 2004. Is this about the health of employees? The health of patients and families? A public health statement? A form of public education? Aesthetics? (The CEO is quoted as saying patients should not have to contend with the lingering scent of cigarette smoke on staff members returning from breaks.) Ironically, no one quoted in the article, including the spokesperson for a second-hand smoke organization, claimed that this ban was to improve the healthiness or cleanliness of the hospital environment. As long as this is happening in a private hospital, there would appear to be no constitutional issue involved, so the hospital is well within its rights. But does that make the policy right?
posted by Tom Mayo, 3:46 PM | link

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Even the conservative Cato Institute hates this Medicare reform law.

Read their critique (largely based on the fiscal irresponsibility of the thing) here.
posted by Tom Mayo, 4:36 PM | link

Clinton-era policy makers analyze Medicare reform law.

As reported by Reuters this afternoon (click here), liberal health care policy experts are blasting the new Medicare reform package.
posted by Tom Mayo, 2:22 PM | link

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Medicare chief to resign.

In the past hour everyone's reporting that Tom Scully has submitted his resignation as CMS chief effective Dec. 16th. Here is the CBS Marketwatch story. As reported in today's Washington Post ("Medicare Chief Scully Says He's 'Checking Out of Dodge'") Scully was extensively involved in the Conference Committee negotiations over the Medicare reform legislation passed last week (which the White House says the President will sign next Monday). Indeed, as possessor of the most detailed and encyclopedic knowledge of the massive new law, he is now in a position to provide highly remunerated value to law firms and investment bankers keen to make a buck in health care over the next few years. As reported not only in the Post article, but in more detail in today's New York Times (Google link; should be stable, but if not try this), the bidding war over Scully's services has been going on for about 6 months. His participation in the Medicare reform negotiations was based upon a waiver he received from CMS's ethics office. In light of Scully's pre-CMS salary as president of the Federation of American Hospitals ($675,000), one might well expect to see his compensation top 7 figures, especially if he works out a combination arrangement with a law firm and an investment banking firm. As the papers are quick to concede, no one is alleging that Scully took any position during negotiations over the future of Medicare with an eye toward his future employment options, and Scully is an honorable man. Also, Scully might have been the perfect choice to spearhead the Administration's efforts to get a passable reform bill out of conference. The ethics clearance, however, was handy, n'est-ce pas?
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:44 AM | link

Monday, December 01, 2003

Church May Penalize Politicians

Great article in Monday's L.A. Times about the rustlings within the Catholic Church to discipline Catholic politicians whose public positions contradict Church orthodoxy. The article is here (requires free registration). According to the article, "Punishments could range from bans on speaking appearances at Catholic institutions to excommunication." It's not just a theoretical possibility, either: "A few of America's 195 dioceses, including Dallas and Philadelphia, bar abortion-rights politicians from speaking at Catholic churches and schools. In April, news leaked that Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, S.D., had sent a letter asking the state's Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle to stop calling himself a Catholic."

I have no quarrel with the Catholic Church advocating public policy, nor should the Church -- or any church or religious organization -- feel constrained about identifying politicians with whom it agrees and disagrees. And any faith community has the right to define the content of its core beliefs, as well as to identify those whom it regards as "in" and "out" of the faith's traditions and beliefs. But at least since JFK tried to put this issue to rest, I thought American politicians, and the polity to which they appeal, had a pretty clear idea that politicians don't (and shouldn't) take their lead from church leaders. More to the point: Can't a Catholic politician believe privately that abortion or the death penalty is wrong and yet profess publicly that the country's policies should be open to alternative moral views? That a pro-choice law represents an appropriate balance of competing private moralities, even if -- as a practicing Catholic -- that politician might fervently desire that the law was otherwise?
posted by Tom Mayo, 10:11 PM | link

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter