Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dallas Morning News: series on palliative care

This is quite a remarkable series of articles on end-of-life care and in particular palliative care at Baylor University Medical Center. Short of watching the amazing 6-hour documentary by Frederick Wiseman ("Near Death"), this is as close as most of us will get to the true in-hospital experience until it happens to one of us or someone we love. All of the articles are collected in one place, along with interactive tools and videos: At the Edge of Life: Life and death in 21st century medicine. I hope these links will work for a long time; the information and insights in these articles will be invaluable for many years to come.
posted by Tom Mayo, 1:56 PM | link

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

WSJ backs incentives for organ donation

I know it will not come as a surprise that the house organ for American capitalism thinks a market for buying and selling human organs would produce a better system than the one we have now (100,000 patients on waiting lists, four times as many as were on lists when the current system was enacted into law in 1984), but maybe -- this time, at least -- they're right. Today's opinion piece, "Wait-Listed to Death" (WSJ link, Yahoo! Buzz link), doesn't lay out the full argument in favor of allowing for a market to develop, but it does offer its support for a modest rewrite of the National Organ Transplant Act by Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.).

The Journal doesn't say much about Specter's bill, other than that it would retain the ban on valuable consideration being paid for organs and increase the criminal penalties for violating the prohibition (both of which contradict the Journal's call for a market), but they seem to think the bill is a step in the right direction. But Specter appears not to have introduced the bill yet, nor has he described it in remarks from the floor of the Senate or posted so much as an outline of it on his Senate web site.

A columnist at the N.Y. Sun, Diana Furchtgott-Roth,, claims to have seen the three-page bill, or a summary of it. On September 24 she wrote:

according to the bill's summary, it would "increase the supply of donated organs by clarifying the legality of both government incentives that honor the gift of life and payments associated with the screening, pretransplantation care, and follow-up care expenses incurred by living organ donors." Both states and charities would be allowed to pay these expenses.
Ms. Fuchtgott-Roth adds: "As states sort out these issues, there are a variety of ways that they could permit compensation, such as funeral expenses, payments to an IRA, tuition or tax credits, or health insurance. One potential benefit to encourage donations would be to put donors and their families at the top of the list to receive kidney donations from others, should a future need arise."

In a December 4 post on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, John J. Pitney, Jr., writes that Specter is circulating a draft of his bill, the Organ Donor Clarification Act of 2008. If anyone has a copy, I'd love to see the "clarifying" language.

Meanwhile, Sally Satel, M.D., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a book coming out next month -- When Altruism Isn't Enough -- in which she and others make the case for economic incentives to encourage organ donation. Here's the AEI website's blurb:

America faces a desperate organ shortage. Today, more than 78,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant; only one in four will receive one this year, while twelve die each day waiting for help. Not surprisingly, many patients are riven to desperate measures to circumvent the eight-year waiting list--renting billboards, advertising in newsletters, or even purchasing an organ on the global black market. Altruism is an admirable but clearly insufficient motivation for would-be donors.

What can be done to solve the kidney crisis? Reward organ donors for their remarkable gifts. Noncash benefits to people who donate to a desperate stranger will motivate others to do the same, increase the national supply of kidneys, and reduce needless death and suffering. When Altruism Isn't Enough: The Case for Compensating Kidney Donors explores the key ethical, theoretical, and practical concerns of a government-regulated donor compensation program. It is the first book to describe how such a system could be designed to be ethically permissible, economically justifiable, and pragmatically achievable.

Altruism is a beautiful virtue, but relying on it as the sole impetus for organ donation ensures that thousands of people will continue to die each year while waiting for kidney transplants.

Sally Satel, MD, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Contributors: David C. Cronin II, MD, Julio J. Elias, Richard A. Epstein, Michele Goodwin, Benjamin E. Hippen, MD, Elbert S. Huang, MD, Arthur J. Matas, MD, David O. Meltzer, MD, Sally Satel, MD, Mary C. Simmerling, James Stacey Taylor, Nidhi Thakur, Chad Thompson.

It's already on my list for 2009. For those who can't wait that long, AEI has some of her articles on the subject posted on their website:

Finally, let's recall that last December Congress itself amended the prohibition-of-organ-sales provision in the National Organ Transplant Act (42 U.S.C. 274e) to make it clear that the law doesn't prohibit paired organ exchanges (Pub. L. No. 110-144, 121 Stat. 1813). The amendment codified the conclusion of a DOJ Memorandum Opinion that paired organ exchanges are not a form of "valuable consideration" in violation of the Act. Although, with the amendment, the point is now moot, I disagreed with DOJ on this, although I approved its conclusion on pure policy grounds. (In brief, if B, the spouse of patient A , isn't a good match with A but is a good match for patient C, and C's spouse, D, is a match for patient A, and B agrees to donate a kidney to Patient C in return for D's promise to donate a kidney to patient A, I think the exchange of promises -- and certainly the exchange of kidneys -- is valuable consideration. Not that there should be anything wrong with that . . . . )

Whatever evil Congress had in mind when it enacted the prohibition, this couldn't have been it, but it does open the door ever so slightly to at least some kinds of valuable exchanges. Based on what I've read about Sen. Specter's bill-to-be, the states ought to be able to craft their own benefit packages to create incentives without risking the commodification of the body and coercing desperate poor people into donating their organ in order to put food on the table.

posted by Tom Mayo, 9:54 AM | link

Friday, December 12, 2008

Vatican issues 3rd major bioethics pronouncement in 21 years

First, it was Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) in 1987, followed by Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) in 1995. Now the Vatican has given us its third major pronouncement on bioethics in over 2 decades with Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), released today. The instruction was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly headed by Pope Benedict XVI) and (as the N.Y. Times put it) "carries the approval and authority of [the Pope]." In light of the Holy See's numerous lesser statements over the years, it comes as no great surprise that the document condemns the morning-after pill, the IUD, RU-486, the freezing of embryos (a common practice for couples who undergo in vitro fertilization), stem-cell research (if the stem cells were derived from embryos: stem cells from adults, cord blood, or fetuses who died of natural causes are okay), human cloning, and designer babies.
posted by Tom Mayo, 2:55 PM | link

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Cleveland Clinic addresses financial conflicts of interest head-on

Today's Times has an interesting piece on the Cleveland Clinic's new policy of

publicly reporting the business relationships that any of its 1,800 staff doctors and scientists have with drug and device makers.

The clinic, one of the nation’s most prominent medical research centers, is making a complete disclosure of doctors’ and researchers’ financial ties available on its Web site,

It appears to be the first such step by a major medical center to disclose the industry relationships of individual doctors. And it comes as the nation’s doctors and hospitals are under mounting pressure to address potential financial conflicts of interest that can occur when they work closely with companies to develop and research new drugs and devices.

The public reporting will be pretty minimal, at least at first, but the Cleveland Clinic gets points for getting out in front on this issue. Expect other research/treatment centers to follow suit. Charles Grassley and his colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee will be going after academic medical centers and others to deal with financial conflicts openly, and major drug firms like Merck and Lillyhave already announced their intention to publicly disclose payments to physicians next year.
posted by Tom Mayo, 8:21 AM | link

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