Who belongs to us?

October 2, 2019

Pär SegerdahlBioethics has a problem with human beings, the philosopher Roland Kipke writes. It must ask who belongs to our moral community. Who has rights? Who has human dignity? Who has the moral status usually attributed to healthy adult humans? Who has the right to life?

The question is: Who belongs to us? Are human embryos included in the community? Newborns? Those with advanced dementia? Intelligent animals?

A common response to the question is to propose a philosophical criterion. Two positions dominate in bioethics. One includes all biological human beings, thereby embryos, newborns and those with advanced dementia. Everyone who belongs to the species Homo sapiens belongs to the moral community.

The second position holds that species membership is irrelevant. Instead, the focus is on mental capacities that one holds characterize a “person.” For example, rationality and self-awareness. This excludes embryos, newborns and those with advanced dementia from the community. However, a rational chimpanzee may enter. All persons belong to the moral community, regardless of species affiliation.

Kipke shows how both criteria compel us to answer the question “Who belongs to us?” in ways that contradict most people’s moral intuitions. We might accept this if the positions could be justified by strong arguments, he says. However, such arguments are missing.

What should a poor philosophical gatekeeper do then? Who should be admitted into the community? Who should be kept out?

The solution to the gatekeeper’s dilemma, Kipke suggests, is our ordinary concept of the human. When we talk about “humans,” we usually do not use the scientific concept of a biological species. Our everyday concept of a human already has moral dimensions, he points out. We cannot see a human being without seeing a living person belonging to our community. According to this third position, all humans belong to the moral community.

The only problem is that the gatekeeper needs a criterion to distinguish the human members of the community. It is true that we have everyday uses of the word “human.” It is also true that we normally have no difficulties in distinguishing a human being. However, do these uses really contain a criterion suitable for more philosophical gatekeeper tasks? They do, according to Kipke. He holds that there is a characteristic “living human gestalt or the form of the body,” especially the face, which easily allows recognition of a human being, even when she is seriously injured and deformed.

The “living human form” would thus be the criterion. This form makes us equals in the moral community.

Kipke’s article is philosophically exciting and his criticism of the two dominant positions is revealing. Personally, I nevertheless find the still dominant preoccupation with the question “Who belongs to us?” somewhat terrifying, and perhaps even inhuman. Bioethics treats human concerns about, for example, genetics and stem cell research. Admittedly, people often express their concerns in the form of boundary issues. People who worry about the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, for example, can talk about the embryo as a human individual or as a potential person. However, addressing their worries by suggesting that our common language contains a criterion that has the authority to separate the members of the moral community will probably not still the minds of such worried and perhaps even angry humans. They need a lot more attention. Perhaps it turns out that the intellectual boundary issue concealed the living source of their concerns and made it impossible to treat the problem at its source.

I believe we need a bioethics that responds to moral concerns more humanly and communicatively than only as philosophical boundary issues. Could we not use our ordinary language to think together about the issues that worry us? To refer to an ordinary concept of the human as an arbiter that supposedly dictates the answers to bioethical boundary issues seems characteristic of a smaller community: one that is professionally preoccupied with philosophical boundary issues.

Is that not placing bioethics before life? Is it not putting the cart before the horse?

Pär Segerdahl

Kipke R. Being human: Why and in what sense it is morally relevant. Bioethics. 2019;00:1–11. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12656

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How about personally optimized treatment?

May 6, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIt is well known that patients who are asked to participate in cancer trials are tempted by the therapeutic misconception. They believe they are offered a newer and better treatment, when in fact it is about research into an untested treatment. When researchers use genetic tests to develop personalized oncology, even more misconceptions can arise. I will soon explain. But first, what is personalized cancer treatment? Here is an example.

Patients whose tumor is to be operated may undergo preparatory radiation or chemotherapy. Since the preparatory therapy has severe side effects, one wants to avoid giving it to patients whose tumors do not respond to it. The challenge is to distinguish patients who respond to treatment from patients who do not. This is to be accomplished through, among other things, genetic tests on the tumor cells. If this works, you can develop personalized cancer treatment. Patients with the “right” tumor cell genetics receive the preparatory therapy, while patients who, according to the genetic tests, only get the side effects, with no effect on tumor growth, do not receive the therapy.

What are the misconceptions that can arise in patients who are asked to participate in research on personalized cancer treatment? Here are some examples.

Patients who are told that the researchers will do genetic tests can feel a genetic responsibility to participate, considering their children and grandchildren. They believe the test results may be relevant to close relatives, who may have the same disease genes. However, the tests are done on mutated tumor cells and therefore say nothing about inherited cancer risk. A sense of genetic responsibility can thus be triggered by the word “genetics” and create a genetic misconception of research in personalized oncology.

Other misconceptions have to do with the positive language used to describe personalized medicine. One talks about personally “optimized” treatments, about “tailored” treatments, about treatments that are adapted “to the individual.” This language use is not intended to mislead, but it is easy to see how words such as “optimization” can cause patients to believe that research participation means special treatment benefit.

The biggest challenge is perhaps to explain the research purpose behind the positive language. The aim is to be able in the future to distinguish between patients, to “stratify” them, as it less positively is called. Personally optimized care actually means that some patients do not receive certain treatments. This is, of course, reasonable if genetic tests can show that they have no benefit from the treatments but only get the side effects. However, what do cancer patients themselves say about stratified cancer treatment, where some patients are identified as non-responders and therefore are not offered the same treatment as other patients? Finally, do participants understand that “tailored treatment” is a future goal of the study and not something they are offered to try?

Communication with patients recruited for studies in personalized oncology faces many challenges, as patients are tempted by even more misconceptions than just the well-known therapeutic misconception.

Do you want to know more? Read the German study that inspired this blog post.

Pär Segerdahl

Perry, J., Wöhlke, S., Heßling, A.C., Schicktanz, S. 2017. Why take part in personalised cancer research? Patients’ genetic misconception, genetic responsibility and incomprehension of stratification—an empirical‐ethical examination. Eur J Cancer Care. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecc.12563

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Pragmatic trials without informed consent?

April 8, 2019

Pär SegerdahlRandomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered to be the gold standard for determining a causal effect of medical interventions. To achieve this aim, possible confounding factors must be avoided. This implies excluding many patients from participating in the trial, for example, patients with concomitant conditions. A negative consequence of these exclusions, however, is limited generalizability. Studying the artificially uniform participant group, you will be able to determine a causal effect, but you will know much less about real-life treatment outcomes in the population where the intervention actually will be used.

Further artificiality is created by the written informed consent procedure, which excludes even further patients from participating in the trial. Moreover, because they know they participate in a clinical trial, participants may change their behavior.

All this points to the importance of so-called pragmatic randomized controlled trials. In such trials, the effectiveness of two approved and routinely prescribed medicines are compared in normal clinical practice. This avoids most of the artificiality of RCTs and significantly improves generalizability and practical clinical relevance. Randomization is still required for scientific purposes, however, and written informed consent is an ethical obligation.

The demand for written informed consent is an obstacle to pragmatic trials. By creating, once again, artificial selection of patients, results continue to be less generalizable, which detracts from the whole point of conducting pragmatic trials. In a recent paper in the BMJ, twelve authors, among them, Stefan Eriksson at CRB, therefore argue that “EU clinical trial regulations should be revised to allow the waiver or modification of informed consent in low risk pragmatic trials.”

Some would consider this suggestion to be controversial. We need to keep in mind, however, the extremely low risks of studies that compare standardly prescribed medicines in normal clinical practice. We need to balance that low risk against the enormous social value of generalizable findings in evidence-based medicine.

Pär Segerdahl

Dal-Ré, R. et al. Low risk pragmatic trials do not always require participants’ informed consent. BMJ 2019;364:l1092

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On “truly” understanding the risk

March 12, 2019

Pär SegerdahlIt is a well-known psychological fact that people have great difficulties to understand probabilistic risks. What does it actually mean that the risk of developing breast cancer the next ten years is fifteen percent? In addition to the difficulties of understanding probabilities, mathematical expressions can cause a false appearance of exactitude and objectivity. It is often about uncertain evaluations, but expressed in seemingly definitive figures.

At our Monday seminar, Ulrik Kihlbom discussed another difficulty with understanding risk information. It can be difficult to understand not only the probabilities, but also what it is you risk experiencing. Sometimes, people face enormously complex choices, where the risks are high, but also the benefits. Perhaps you suffer from a serious disease from which you will die. However, there is a treatment, and it may work. It is just that the treatment has such severe side effects that you may die even from the treatment.

Ulrik Kihlbom interviewed physicians treating patients with leukemia. The doctors stated that patients often do not understand the risks of the treatment they are offered. The difficulty is not so much about understanding the risk of dying from the treatment. The patients understand that risk. However, the doctors said, no one who has not actually seen the side effects understand that the treatment can make you so incredibly ill.

Yet, it seems like quite comprehensible side effects: fatigue, serious infections, nausea and vomiting, stomach cramp, diarrhea, skin irritation, pain, and weight loss. Why would patients find it difficult to understand these risks?

Could it be that doctors have too high demands on “real” understanding? Must the patient, in order to “truly” understand the side effects, already have experienced the treatment? According to the doctors, experienced patients are at least easier to inform about the side effects. At the same time, the requirement that one must have had the experiences to really understand them seems too strong.

Rather, says Ulrik Kihlbom, doctors probably notice from the patients’ attitude that some of them underestimate what it is like to experience the side effects. Such attitudes can be sensed. The patients understand verbally that they are at risk of these side effects, but emotionally they do not really understand what the side effects are like, especially when they come together for a long time.

This resembles a general human difficulty. We often neglect how we ourselves are affected by our experiences. We project our present, unaffected self, and think: “I’m strong, I can handle those side effects.” However, when we actually experience the side effects, we are no longer strong! The self is not a constant, but changes with our experiences.

Here, then, it is not the probabilities that cause the difficulties, but the words. We understand the side effects verbally and can easily reproduce them. However, even words can cause a false appearance of objectivity: as if the experiences the words denote would not really reach us at our core. We separate ourselves from what we verbally understand we may experience, as if we could live our lives without being affected… without actually living them.

Ulrik Kihlbom has found a striking example of yet another aspect of the difficulty of understanding risk information. Not only probabilities but also common words such as “nausea” can create characteristic misunderstandings of risk information.

Pär Segerdahl

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Ask the patients about the benefits and the risks

January 16, 2019

Pär SegerdahlAlmost no medications are without risks of side effects. When new drugs are approved, decision makers must balance risks and benefits. To make the balancing, they use results from clinical trials where the drugs are tested on patients to determine (among other things) efficacy and side effects.

But how do you balance risks and benefits? Is the balancing completely objective, so that all that is needed is results from clinical trials? Or can risks and benefits be valued differently?

It has been noted that decision makers can value risks and benefits differently from patients. Therefore, results merely from clinical trials do not suffice. Decision makers also need to understand how the patients themselves value the risks and the benefits associated with treatments of their disease. The patients need to be asked about their preferences.

Karin Schölin Bywall is a PhD student at CRB. She plans to carry out preference studies with patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. The task is complex, since risks and benefits are multidimensional. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease with several symptoms, such as pain, stiffness, fatigue, fever, weakness, deformity, malaise, weight loss and depression. Medications can be variously effective on different symptoms, while they can have a range of side effects. Which positive effect on which symptom is sufficiently important for the patients to outweigh a certain level of one of the side effects?

Many patients naturally want the drug to enable them to work, despite the disease. However, if the pain is relieved enough to enable carrying out the work, while the medicine has as a side effect such fatigue that the patient cannot get out of bed, then the desired benefit is not provided.

To prepare her preference study, Karin Schölin Bywall decided to approach the patient group immediately. From the very beginning, she wanted to engage the patients in her research, by interviewing them about how they perceive participating in preference studies on new drugs against rheumatoid arthritis.

The patients stated that they saw it as important to be involved in regulatory decisions about new treatments of their disease. So that decision makers understand the patients’ own experiences of the benefits and risks that such drugs may have, and what the benefits and risks mean in practice, in the daily life of a rheumatic.

Results from the interviews are reported in the journal, The Patient – Patient-Centered Outcomes Research. The article emphasizes that preference studies can lead to drugs that the patient group is more motivated to take according to the physician’s instructions, which can improve clinical outcomes in the patients. The patients further stated that as participants in preference studies they want good information about how the drug functions, about how the study will be used by decision makers, and about where in the decision-making process the study will be used.

Feedback from patients is likely to become increasingly important in future decisions on medical products.

Pär Segerdahl

Schölin Bywall, K.; Veldwijk, J.; Hansson, M. G.; Kihlbom, U. “Patient Perspectives on the Value of Patient Preference Information in Regulatory Decision Making: A Qualitative Study in Swedish Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis.” The Patient – Patient-Centered Outcomes Research, 2018. DOI: 10.1007/s40271-018-0344-2

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Dissertation on the decision not to resuscitate

November 26, 2018

Pär SegerdahlSince the beginning of this blog, I have had the opportunity to write about Mona Pettersson’s research, which deals with decisions in cancer care not to resuscitate terminally ill patients through cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The physician makes the decision, if the patient has a too bad prognosis and is too weak to survive the treatment with good quality of life. Or if the patient has expressed a desire to not receive the treatment.

The latest post I published is from August this year: Ethical competence for the decision not to resuscitate. Since then, Mona Pettersson has not only published another article, but also defended her dissertation. In four sub-studies, she examines nurses and physicians’ experiences of the decision not to resuscitate. Among other things, she investigates their understanding of ethical competence as it relates to the decision, as well as what aspects of the decision they consider most important.

If you want to read the entire work, download the dissertation. You can also read more about Mona Pettersson in this Profile.

Pär Segerdahl

Pettersson, M. 2018. COMPETENCE AND COMMUNICATION. Do Not Resuscitate Decisions in Cancer Care. Digital Comprehensive Summaries of Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Medicine 1499. 62 pp. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. ISBN 978-91-513-0459-5.

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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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