How to listen to (the right) patient voices?

October 25, 2016

Ulrik Kihlbom, Academic co-lead of PREFER's methodology work packageWe all think patients’ voices are important. But how do we make sure we listen to the right ones? Patient engagement and patient perspectives have come into focus in health care in recent years. Though this is especially true for the clinical setting, this development can be expected to continue for decision-makers at other levels.

We are just starting to research these questions in a project called PREFER. The aim is to establish which methods to use to bring in patient perspectives into important decisions regarding medical drugs; decisions made by different stakeholders, such as physicians, regulatory and reimbursement authorities, and the industry. In short: how and when should decision makers listen to the patients?

But, how can we make sure that the methods enable decision-makers to listen to the right patient voices?

Now, the expression “the right patient voices” should plausibly be understood as comprising several aspects such as being representative of the actual views patients have, being adequately informed, and as being non-biased. Each of these aspects require thorough consideration and also methodological development. I am myself responsible for one task that will specifically address these questions. One of the many intriguing issues here is when, during the process of falling ill, coming under treatment, and hopefully convalescing, a patient’s voice should be listened to? The patient’s preferences will probably change during the trajectory of illness. Imagine that you fall seriously ill, are treated and recover, and suppose also that your preferences for a risky treatment change during this period of time. Do you know when your preferences are such that your physician should listen to them? And when they merit less attention? I am myself far from sure how to answer this question.

Another set of questions concerns how the (right) patient perspective should be incorporated into the decision making. How, for example should a reimbursement authority weigh the patient perspective against cost-effectiveness when making a decision of subsidising a medical drug? Or how should a regulatory authority, such as EMA in Europe, FDA in the US, and Läkemedelsverket in Sweden, weigh patient effectiveness against safety concerns? It seems fair to say that everybody agrees that the patient perspective should have a weight, but no one has an established scale.

These are some of the very hard and intriguing questions that the PREFER project will address over the coming five years. 33 partners from academic institutions, patient organisations, health technology assessment bodies, small companies and the pharmaceutical industry are putting their heads, competence and resources together. Uppsala University is coordinating the project, with CRB’s director Mats G. Hansson at the helm. Apart from me and Mats, Josepine Fernow, Elisabeth Furberg, Jorien Veldwijk and Karin Schölin Bywall at CRB are involved in PREFER. We are looking forward to interesting research questions, but also to learning by working in, and leading, a public-private partnership of this size.

In the autumn of 2021, the project will issue recommendations. By then we will know better how decision makers may find and listen to the (right) patient voices. And how patients’ voices can make themselves heard in the decisions of regulators, health technology assessment bodies, reimbursement agencies, and pharmaceutical companies.

Ulrik Kihlbom

About PREFER: The Patient Preferences in Benefit-Risk Assessments during the Drug Life Cycle (PREFER) project has received funding from the Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking under grant agreement No 115966. This Joint Undertaking receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and EFPIA. The contents of this text reflects the author’s view and not the view of IMI, the European Union or EFPIA.

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The Ethics Blog - Exploring preferences

Did medicine save the life of ethics?

October 18, 2016

Pär SegerdahlAbout thirty-five years ago, Stephen Toulmin wrote an article on the topic: How medicine saved the life of ethics. I think it is still worth reading.

Toulmin argued roughly as follows:

During the first six decades of the 1900s, ethics wasn’t feeling well at all. One might say that it suffered from moral aphasia: it couldn’t talk sensibly about real ethical problems.

While moral philosophers were preoccupied with formally specifying what distinguishes moral questions and judgements in general, without taking sides on specific ethical issues, ethics debaters outside of academic philosophy were trapped in the opposition between dogmatism and relativism.

Dogmatists referred respectfully to universal principles and authoritative religious systems, while relativists and subjectivists dismissed the absolute claims with reference to anthropological and psychological findings about differences in people’s attitudes.

In short, while philosophers analyzed what characterizes morality in general and left living ethical issues to their fate, dogmatists and relativists fought fruitlessly about whether these issues have absolute answers, based on universal principles, or if the answers are relative to cultural and individual factors.

In this near-death state, medicine came to the rescue. Medical practices gave rise to very definite ethical questions that insisted on answers and guidance. When philosophers in the 1960s began to pay attention to these issues, ethics was rescued from the life-threatening condition in which it found itself.

Toulmin suggests that medical ethics saved the life of ethics through four resuscitation efforts:

By focusing on situations, needs and interests, which are more objectively given than the attitudes, feelings and desires that anthropology and psychology were interested in. Whether a person’s actions threaten another’s health can be discussed in objective terms, as opposed to questions about habits and tastes.

(Here I think of the emergence of empirical ethics, where more objective aspects of ethical problems are explored in various kinds of studies.)

By analyzing concrete cases, instead of striving towards the universal principles to which dogmatists referred. Toulmin compares medical ethics to medical practice. Diseases described only in general terms become abstract and without specific relevance: they acquire practical relevance only for health professionals who learned the art of identifying real-life cases of the diseases. The same applies to ethics, which requires an art of identifying real-life cases of, for example, “disrespect”; otherwise ethical concepts become abstract and without practical significance.

(Here I think, among other things, of the emergence of ethics rounds in the ethics training of healthcare staff.)

By focusing on professional activities, giving rise to definite responsibilities and duties. To understand our duties to each other, we cannot assume an abstract image of humans as individuals. We live in communities and act in forms of life that shape our obligations. Issues in medical ethics are often about obligations shaped by professional roles and contexts.

(Here I think of the previous blog post, about boundaries between public health and healthcare, which sometimes might be transgressed. Practices such as research, healthcare and industry shape different types of obligation and responsibility, which it sometimes can be difficult to keep separate or balance.)

By reintroducing assessments of equity and personal relationships in ethics, assessments of how the circumstances alter the cases. What, in a doctor-patient relationship, is a routine examination, can outside of this context give us reason to speak of an assault. Circumstances alter the cases, and Toulmin compares medical ethics with how courts make assessments of what is just and reasonable between people, given what we know about them.

(Here I think of how medical ethics increasingly is done in dialogue with patients, health professionals and researchers, to better understand the circumstances.)

– Why do I find Toulmin’s article worth reading today?

Among other things, because it provides a broad and realistic description of ethics as a practice and art, in time and in particular contexts, partly comparable to the doctor’s or the lawyer’s practice and art. The article also makes the development of bioethics understandable, such as the emergence of empirical ethics, of ethics rounds, and of the endeavor to work in dialogue with stakeholders and with the professions.

The article also nuances a simplified understanding of how ethical questions are answered. We are inclined to think that empirical studies give us the facts. Then we add general moral principles and derive the ethical conclusions. This could resemble a relapse into dogmatism, where religious principles have been replaced by secular philosophical principles.

Finally, I want to mention that the article sheds light on a problem that we encountered in some empirical studies lately. Colleagues have made ethical education interventions in different healthcare professions. The participants appreciated the practical exercises and found them instructive. But no clear effect of the exercises could be measured by comparing results of knowledge tests before and after the interventions.

Toulmin’s description of how medicine saved the life of ethics may suggest an explanation. The exercises were practical and concerned cases with which the participants were familiar. But the knowledge tests were formulated roughly in those general terms which constituted such a large part of the illness of ethics. The interventions might have been vitalizing, but not the method of measurement.

Pär Segerdahl

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Public health campaigns in healthcare: mothers should breastfeed!

October 3, 2016

Pär SegerdahlPublic health campaigns do to some extent infringe upon our lives. Maybe we are prepared to allow some of these intrusions. We protest a little, just for show, but still adopt the message and begin to think that we probably ought to eat a little more X and a little less Y.

Some campaigns, however, encroach on sensitive areas of life, in more vulnerable situations, and in places where one would expect more personal respect.

Campaigns to encourage mothers to breastfeed, instead of giving infant formula, provide an example. These campaigns occur not least in healthcare, in contacts with new mothers who for various reasons may have difficulties with breastfeeding, or who don’t want to breastfeed.

Earlier this year, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist had an article published in Nursing Ethics about such mothers’ experiences. It’s about mothers who don’t breastfeed and about their experiences of contacts with healthcare and being met with campaigning.

The survey responses described in the article suggest that these mothers can feel like bad mothers. They are told that breastfeeding is the best and safest option for the child, that all mothers can breastfeed if they just try, and that “artificial” formula feeding increases the risk of malnutrition and various diseases in the child.

The mothers feel that they don’t get opportunity to talk about their problems or desires to find a way of feeding their child that works for them. Might not bottle feeding be the better option for some mothers and children? The information seems, to a great extent, to be about communicating the norm that a real mother should breastfeed. That’s at least how the mothers in the study appear to experience the situation, and they may feel guilty not only because they don’t breastfeed, but also because they don’t enjoy it.

Nihlén Fahlquist points out that information about feeding infants in essence is a form of risk communication where parents are informed about the risks and benefits of breastfeeding and bottle feeding. She suggests that breastfeeding campaigns tend to be deficient in three ethical respects, which need to be addressed:

Parents are informed about risks and benefits on a collective level, without regard to individual problems, needs and circumstances. The public health perspective overshadows the unique situations of these mothers, even though the question how to feed one’s child is intimate. Risks and benefits should be weighed individually.

Campaigning collides with respect for autonomy, which is important in healthcare. The risk communication is one-way; questions and doubts are not taken seriously. It’s about informing parents about “the best option.” One-way communication should be replaced by dialogue.

The effects of breastfeeding campaigns should be evaluated not only statistically, in terms of how many mothers are breastfeeding. They should also be evaluated ethically, in terms of good care. The mothers who responded to the survey don’t seem to experience good care, sensitive to their individual needs.

For me, the article shows how public health campaigns conducted in healthcare need to be adapted to the type of meetings that we need and expect there. Otherwise, risk communication might be perceived as an unwarranted intrusion. Additional sensitivity is required when campaigns revolve around strong norms that easily give rise to feelings of guilt, such as norms of motherhood.

Pär Segerdahl

Nihlén Fahlquist, J. 2016. Experience of non-breastfeeding mothers: Norms and ethically responsible risk communication. Nursing Ethics 23: 231-241

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In dialogue with patients

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