Patients find misleading information on the internet

October 30, 2018

Pär SegerdahlIn phase 1 clinical studies of substances that might possibly be used to treat cancer in the future, cancer patients are recruited as research participants. These patients almost always have advanced cancer that no longer responds to the standard treatment.

That research participation would affect the cancer is unlikely. The purpose of a phase 1 study is to determine safe dosage range and to investigate side effects and other safety issues. This will then enable proceeding to investigating the effectiveness of the substance on specific forms of cancer, but with other research participants.

Given that patients often seek online information on clinical trials, Tove Godskesen, Josepine Fernow and Stefan Eriksson wanted to investigate the quality of the information that currently is available on the internet about phase 1 clinical cancer trials in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

The results they report in the European Journal of Cancer Care are quite alarming. The most serious problem, as I understand it, is that the information conceals risks of serious side effects, and in various ways suggests possible positive treatment outcomes. This lack of accurate language is serious. We are dealing with severely ill patients who easily entertain unrealistic hopes for new treatment options.

To give a picture of the problem, I would like to give a few examples of typical phrases that Godskesen, Fernow and Eriksson found in the information on the internet, as well as their suggestions for more adequate wordings. Noticing the contrast between the linguistic usages is instructive.

One problem is that the information speaks of treatment, even though it is about research participation. Instead of writing “If you are interested in the treatment,” you could write “If you want to participate in the research.” Rather than writing “Patients will be treated with X,” you could write “Participants will be given X.”

The substance being tested is sometimes described as a medicine or therapy. Instead, you can write “You will get a substance called X.”

Another problem is that research participation is described as an advantage and opportunity for the cancer patient. Instead of writing “An advantage of study participation is that…,” one could write “The study might lead to better cancer treatments for future patients.” Rather than writing “This treatment could be an opportunity for you,” which is extremely misleading in phase 1 clinical cancer trials, one could more accurately say, “You can participate in this study.”

The authors also tested the readability of the texts they found on the internet. The Danish website skaccd.org had the best readability scores, followed by the Norwegian site helsenorge.no. The Swedish website cancercenter.se got the worst readability scores. The information was very brief and deemed to require a PhD to be understandable.

It is, of course, intelligible that it is hard to speak intelligibly about such difficult things as cancer trials. Not only do the patients recruited as study participants hope for effective treatment. The whole point of the research is effective cancer treatment. This is the ultimate perspective of the research; the horizon towards which the gaze is turned.

The fact, however, is that this horizon is far removed, far away in the future, and is about other cancer patients than those who participate in phase 1 trials. Therefore, it is important not to let this perspective characterize information to patients in whom hope would be unrealistic.

Do not talk about treatments and opportunities. Just say “You can participate in this study.”

Pär Segerdahl

Godskesen, TE, Fernow J, Eriksson S. Quality of online information about phase I clinical cancer trials in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Eur J Cancer Care. 2018;e12937. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecc.12937

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Ethical competence for the decision not to resuscitate

August 28, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSometimes, physicians have to decide that a cancer patient has such a poor prognosis that he or she should not be resuscitated through cardiopulmonary rescue, if discovered with cardiac arrest. The procedure is violent and would in these cases cause unnecessary suffering.

The situation is stressful for the healthcare team no matter which decision is taken. Providing violent cardiopulmonary rescue to a terminally ill cancer patient can be perceived as poor care at the end of life. At the same time, one wishes of course to treat the patient, so the decision to not resuscitate can be stressful, too. The decision requires ethical competence.

Mona Pettersson, PhD student at CRB, examines in her dissertation the decision not to resuscitate patients in the fields of oncology and hematology. In an article in BMC Medical Ethics, she describes physicians and nurses’ reflections on ethical competence in relation to the decision not to resuscitate. Even if the physician takes the decision, the nurses are involved in the highest degree. They have responsibility for the care of the patient and of the relatives.

The ethical difficulties concern not just the decision itself. The difficulties also concern how patients and relatives are informed about the decision, as well as how the entire healthcare team is informed, involved and functions. What competence is required to ethically handle this care decision? How can such ethical competence be supported?

According to Pettersson, ethical competence involves both personal qualities and knowledge, as well as ability to reflect on how decisions best are made and implemented. In practice, all this interacts. For example, a physician may have knowledge that the patient should be informed about the decision not to resuscitate. At the same time, after reflection, the physician may choose not to inform, or choose to inform the patient using other words.

The physicians and nurses in Mona Pettersson’s study expressed that their ethical competence would be supported by greater opportunities for reflection and discussion of ethics near the end of life within oncology and hematology. This is because healthcare is always situated. The ethical difficulties have a definite context. Healthcare professionals are not ethically competent in general. Their ethical competence is linked to their specific professional practices, which moreover differ for physicians and nurses.

If you want to read more about Mona Pettersson’s dissertation, please read the presentation of her at CRB’s website: Healthcare, ethics and resuscitation.

Pär Segerdahl

Pettersson, M., Hedström. M and Höglund, A. T. Ethical competence in DNR decisions – a qualitative study of Swedish physicians and nurses working in hematology and oncology care. BMC Medical Ethics (2018) 19:63. htdoi.org/10.1186/s12910-018-0300-7

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Inequalities in healthcare – from denial to greater awareness

February 14, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSwedish law prescribes healthcare on equal terms for the whole population. Complying with this law is more difficult than one might believe, since discrimination tends to happen unknowingly, under our own radar.

Telephone nursing has been thought to increase equality in healthcare, because it is so easily accessible. However, research has demonstrated inequalities in telephone counseling. Callers are not treated equally.

Given the role of unawareness in the drama, this is not surprising. Despite the best intentions, treating people equally is very difficult in practice. What can we do about it?

If unawareness is a factor and discrimination largely happens unintentionally, I do not think we can conclude that it must be the result of a “bad system.” Even if discrimination arises unintentionally, it is humans who discriminate. Humans are not just their awareness, but also their unawareness.

In an article in the International Journal of Equity in Health, Anna T. Höglund (and four co-authors) investigates awareness of discrimination in healthcare, especially in telephone nursing. Swedish telephone nurses responded to a questionnaire about discrimination and equal treatment. The nurses’ answers could then be analyzed in terms of four concepts: denial, defense, openness and awareness.

Denial: some nurses denied discrimination. Defense: Some acknowledged that care was not always given on equal terms, but said that measures were taken and that the problem was under control. Openness: some of the nurses found the problem important and wished they could learn more about care on equal terms. Awareness: Some clearly saw how discrimination could occur and gave examples of strategies they used to avoid complex discriminatory patterns of which they were aware.

Rather than explaining unintended discrimination as the result of a “bad system,” these four concepts provide us with tools that can help us handle the problem more responsibly.

Anna T. Höglund proposes two complementary ways of viewing the four concepts. You can see them as positions along a line of development where a person can mature and move from denial or defense, through openness, towards the ultimate goal, awareness. But you can also imagine a person moving back and forth between positions, depending on the circumstances.

One recognizes oneself in these positions; unfortunately, not least in the positions denial and defense. The conceptual model developed in the article increases awareness of discrimination as largely a matter of our awareness and unawareness.

The authors add a fifth concept to the model: Action. If I understand them, they do not mean by “action” correcting a “bad system,” thereby controlling the problem. On the contrary, that would appear very much like expressing the defensive position above. (This indicates how much unawareness there is in many bureaucratic attempts to “control” societal problems through “systems,” to which one later refers: “We have taken appropriate measures, the problem is under control!”)

No, we need to continuously work on the problem; continually address ourselves and our patterns of acting. The conceptual model developed in the article gives us some tools.

Pär Segerdahl

Höglund, A.T., Carlsson, M. Holmström, I.K., Lännerström, L. and Kaminsky, E. 2018. From denial to awareness: a conceptual model for obtaining equity in healthcare. International Journal for Equity in Health 17. DOI 10.1186/s12939-018-0723-2

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We want to be just - the Ethics Blog


Hoping when there is no hope

November 27, 2017

Pär SegerdahlPatients participating in phase I oncology trials have terminal cancer and are near the end of life. Participating in research cannot cure them or even extend their lives. Not only because they have terminal cancer, but also because in phase I trials one tests the safety profile of the treatment, not effectiveness against cancer.

Nevertheless, many patients state that hope is an important reason for them to participate in phase I oncology trials. This is worrying from an ethical perspective. Do they understand what they agree to when they enroll as research participants? Have they been properly informed?

In an article in the Journal of Oncology Practice, Tove Godskesen discusses the issue, together with Ulrik Kihlbom. They argue that it is a norm in cancer care to provide hope to patients, and that this norm may support a tendency in personnel who recruit research participants to not always discourage hope, but rather reinforce it.

Since supporting hope in cancer patients is humanly important, it is not entirely easy to find a solution to the problem. Godskesen and Kihlbom proceed cautiously by distinguishing three kinds of hope that cancer patients may have concerning their participation in phase I trials.

The first is independent hope: patients hope for something that is independent of cure, such as receiving more attention by participating in research. The second kind of hope is realistic hope: patients understand that there is really no hope of cure or prolonged life, but they still hope against hope. The third kind is unrealistic hope: patients misunderstand the situation and think they are offered a treatment that doctors/researchers believe can help.

It is reasonable to support independent and realistic hope in phase I trials, according to Godskesen and Kihlbom. However, unrealistic hope is ethically worrying. It should be discouraged when patients enroll as research participants.

Discouraging unrealistic hope requires awareness of the norm to provide hope to cancer patients. The authors describe how a hopeful attitude is activated simultaneously with the cancer diagnosis. Words like treatment, hope and cure are immediately emphasized in the conversations with patients. The risk is that these words are used in the same hopeful spirit also when participation in a phase I trial is discussed.

Another problem in this context is that patients participating in phase I trials rarely receive palliative care, which would be reasonable given their terminal cancer. This may create the false appearance that research participation means being offered a new treatment. Perhaps the norm to provide hope creates this reluctance to mention palliative care. Staff is afraid that they may discourage hope. That fear is problematic, the authors claim.

What measures do Godskesen and Kihlbom propose? First of all, we need to put extra high demands on the information to participants in phase I oncology trials so that this vulnerable patient group is not exploited. Secondly, the information should contain palliative options. Thirdly, patients should receive palliative counseling throughout the trial.

Integrating research participation with palliative care reduces the risk of encouraging unrealistic hope in this patient group. The fact that trial participation is research and not treatment becomes clearer.

Pär Segerdahl

Godskesen T. and Kihlbom, U. (2017), “I have a lot of pills in my bag, you know”: institutional norms in the provision of hope in phase I clinical cancer trials. Journal of Oncology Practice 13(10): 679-682. DOI: 10.1200/JOP.2017.021832

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Beyond awareness: the need for a more comprehensive ethics of disorders of consciousness

October 23, 2017

Michele FariscoDisorders of consciousness like coma, unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, and what is known as minimally conscious state, are among the most challenging issues in current ethical debates. Ethical analyses of these states usually focus on the ‘residual’ awareness that these patients might still have. Such awareness is taken to have bearing on other factors that are usually considered ethically central, like the patients’ well-being.

Yet, when we take a look at recent scientific investigations of mental activity it appears that things are much more complicated than usually thought. Cognitive science provides empirical evidence that the unconscious brain is able to perform almost all the activities that we (wrongly) think are exclusive of consciousness, including enjoying positive emotions and disregarding negative ones. To illustrate, people that are subliminally exposed to drawings of happy or sad faces are emotionally conditioned in their evaluation of unknown objects, like Chinese characters for people who don’t know Chinese. If preceded by subliminal happy faces, these characters are more likely to elicit positive feelings when consciously perceived. This means that unconscious emotions exist, and these emotions are (plausibly) positive or negative. This in turn suggests that consciousness is not required to have emotions.

Accordingly, people with disorders of consciousness could also have unconscious emotions. Even though they are not capable of external behavior from which we could infer the presence of positive or negative emotional life, we cannot rule out the possibility that these patients’ residual brain activity is related to a residual unaware emotional life, which can be either positive or negative.

We should try to avoid becoming biased by the sort of “consciousness-centrism” that impedes us from seeing the total landscape: there is a lot going on behind (and beyond) the eyes of our awareness.

What does this imply for the ethics of caring for and interacting with people affected by severe disorders of consciousness? Well, as previously said, the ethical discourse surrounding the care for and the relationship with these people has usually focused on their residual awareness, scrutinizing whether and to what extent these people could consciously experience good and bad feelings. Yet if it is possible to have these experiences at the unaware level, shouldn’t this be a relevant consideration when engaging in an ethical analysis of patients with disorders of consciousness? In other words, shouldn’t we take care of their residual unconsciousness in addition to their residual consciousness?

I believe we need to enlarge the scope of our ethical analyses of patients with disorders of consciousness, or at least acknowledge that focusing on residual consciousness is not all we should do, even if it is all we presently can do.

Michele Farisco

Winkielman P., Berridge K.C. Unconscious emotion. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13(3):120-3

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog


Communicating risk in human terms

October 4, 2017

Pär SegerdahlThe concept of risk used in genetics is a technical term. For the specialist, risk is the probability of an undesired event, for example, that an individual develops some form of cancer. Risk is usually stated as a percentage.

It is well known that patients have difficulties to access the probability notion of risk. What do their difficulties mean?

Technical notions, which experts use in their specialist fields, usually have high status. The attitude is: this is what risk really is. Based on such an attitude, people’s difficulties mean: they have difficulties to understand risk. Therefore, we have to help them understand, by using educational tools that explain to them what we mean (we who know what risk is).

We could speak of communicating risk in the experts’ terms (and on their terms). Of course, one tries to communicate risk as simply and accessibly as possible. However, the notion of ​​what to communicate is fixed. Anything else would disturb the attitude that the expert knows what risk really is.

In an article in Patient Education and Counseling, Jennifer Viberg Johansson (along with Pär Segerdahl, Ulrika Hösterey Ugander, Mats G. Hansson and Sophie Langenskiöld) makes an inquiry that departs from this pattern. She explores how people themselves make sense of genetic risk.

How does Viberg’s study depart from the pattern? She does not use the technical notion of risk as the norm for understanding risk.

Viberg interviewed healthy participants in a large research project. She found that they avoided the technical, probability notion of genetic risk. Instead, they used a binary concept of risk. Genetic risk (e.g., for breast cancer) is something that you have or do not have.

Furthermore, they interpreted risk in three ways in terms of time. Past: The risk has been in my genome for a long time. When symptoms arise, the genetic risk is the cause of the disease. Present: The risk is in my genome now, making me a person who is at risk. Future: The risk will be in my genome my entire life, but maybe I can control it through preventive measures.

These temporal dimensions are not surprising. People try to understand risk in the midst of their lives, which evolve in time.

It is not the case, then, that people “fail” to understand. They do understand, but in their own terms. They think of genetic risk as something that one has or does not have. They understand genetic risk in terms of how life evolves in time. A practical conclusion that Viberg draws is that we should try to adapt genetic risk communication to these “lay” conceptions of risk, which probably help people make difficult decisions.

We could speak of communicating risk in human terms (and on human terms). What does genetic risk mean in terms of someone’s past, present and future life?

When you talk with people with lives to live, that is probably what the risk really is.

Pär Segerdahl

J. Viberg Johansson, et al., Making sense of genetic risk: A qualitative focus-group study of healthy participants in genomic research, Patient Educ Couns (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2017.09.009

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Nudging people in the right direction

June 27, 2017

Pär SegerdahlBehavioral scientist study how environments can be designed so that people are pushed towards better decisions. By placing the vegetables first at the buffet, people may choose more vegetables than they would otherwise do. They choose themselves, but the environment is designed to support the “right” choice.

Nudging people to behave more rationally may, of course, seem self-contradictory, perhaps even unethical. Shouldn’t a rational person be allowed to make completely autonomous decisions, instead of being pushed in the “right” direction by the placement of salad bowls? Influencing people by designing their environments might support better habits, but it insults Rationality!

As a philosopher, I do, of course, appreciate independent thinking. However, I do not demand that every daily decision should be the outcome of reasoning. On the contrary, the majority of decisions should not require too much arguing with oneself. It saves time and energy for matters that deserve contemplation. A nudge from a salad bowl at the right place supports my independent thinking.

Linnea Wickström Östervall, former researcher at CRB, has tried to nudge people to a more restrained use of antibiotics. It is important to reduce antibiotics use, because overuse causes antibiotic resistance: a major challenge to manage.

In her study, she embedded a brief reminder of antibiotic resistance in the questionnaire that patients answer before visiting the doctor. This reminder reached not only the patients, then, but also the doctors who went through the questionnaire with the patients. The effect was clear at the clinic level. In the clinics where the reminder was included in the questionnaire, antibiotics use decreased by 12.6 percent compared to the clinics used as control.

If you want to know more about the study, read Linnea’s article in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, where the interesting results are presented in detail. For example, the nudge appears to affect the interaction between doctors and patients, rather than the individual patients.

Can you arrange your everyday environment so that you live wisely without making rational choices?

Pär Segerdahl

Wickström Östervall, L. 2017. “Nudging to prudence? The effect of reminders on antibiotics prescriptions.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 135: 39-52.

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


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