Medical Ethics and Research with the Elderly

Editor’s Note: Please also see: Conflict of Interest-Prescription Drugs, Medical Equipment and the Medical Profession






(10/8/20)-As one checks the research literature related to the elderly, one is always struck by the minimum of studies dealing with those over eighty years of age. There are multiple reasons why this is so, mostly related to the fact that the cohort group over eighty tend to have more morbidity issues and generally are on more medications. If The study is long term, this group tends to have a higher mortality rate. Of course there are exceptions. 


The OPTIMISE Randomized Clinical Trial whose full title is the Optimising Treatment for Mild Systolic Hypertension In the Elderly was carried on in England in 69 primary care sites "Participants, whose primary care physician considered them appropriate for medication reduction, were ages 80 and older, had systolic blood pressure lower than 150 mm Hg, and were receiving at least two antihypertensive medications were included". Participants were followed from 2017 to 2019. The study for each patient lasted 12 weeks. The study group were randomized but not blinded which is considered the gold standard in research.


The researchers wanted  to determine whether a reduction in medications would have any significant effect on hypertension. Other secondary endpoints  they followed included "proportion of participants maintaining medication reduction and differences in blood pressure, frailty, quality of life, adverse effects and severe adverse events".


For those interested in statistics we cite the following: Study started with 569 patients, with 534 completing the 12 week trial. Women made up 48.5% of  the research group.The OPTIMISE CLINICAL TRIAL group reported that ""Overall, 229(86.4%) patients in intervention group and 236 (87.7%) patients in control group had a systolic blood pressure lower than 150 mmHg at twelve weeks". They also report on secondary end points for those who want to check further.


What can we learn from a study like this one? In the short term, medication reduction of antihypertensive drugs in those over 80 years of age may not have any serious consequences. Of course This does not give us any evidence about long term consequences. We do know that the older one is, the more medications one is taking. The consequence of polypharmacy may be substantial. The authors of the study list 6 limitations of this study. It is important to note that the authors point out the following: "[t]his trial did not establish whether or not medication reduction should be attempted (in terms of clinical outcomes) or who should be targeted with such intervention."


Frankly, this minimal opening of the window of dealing with polypharmacy in the older old still is unsettled. In fact they state this-"caution should be exercised in routine clinical practice".


Hopefully, as more is learned about genome action, boutique medication can be applied on an individual basis reducing the high polypharmaceutical rates in the elderly.The original report of this  study can be found in JAMA, May 26, 2020. The long title of the study is Effects of Antihypertensive Medication Reduction vs Usual Care on Short-term Blood Pressure Control in Patients Aged 80 Years andOlder. The Optimise Clinical Trial. The authors are JP Shepard and Coauthors for the OPTIMISE investigators.

(6/18/19)- Dr. Clifford Ro a colorectal surgeon at the University of California, Lod Angeles and Dr. Ronnie Rosenthal, a surgeon and geriatrician at the Yale university School of Medicine lead the American College of Surgeon’s Coalition for Quality in Geriatric Surgery, which is attempting to set some guidelines as to when it is ethically correct to operate on elderly individuals.

A recent study that reviewed major, nonemergency surgery in 165,000 adults over tha age of 65 found that mortality and complications increased with age; and hospital stays often lengthened, and were more likely to go to nursing homes afterwards.

As a result the college issued a new geriatric surgery verification program, to be unveiled next month at a conference in Washington, after four years of planning. It sets 30 standards that hospitals should meet to improve results for older patients.

The geriatric surgery verification program is now being piloted in 8 hospitals across the country.

(6/22/16)- As we noted in our item dated 8/27/13 below, under the terms of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, there is a provision requiring drug and medical-device companies to report to the federal government detail. That information became available in 2014 on the Medicare “Open Payments” website.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the drug industry’s lobbying arm, adopted a voluntary code in 2002 that dealt with the appropriateness of gifts and payments from the drug industry to. medical professionals.

That code provides for modest meal payments to medical professionals and their staff. Using Medicare Open Payments data, researchers collected data on 279,699 doctors who received 63,524 payments reported by the drug companies.

The results of the study which were published in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 95% of the payments were for meals worth about $12 to $18 each. It concluded that the doctors who received these meal payments were more likely to prescribe pharmaceuticals from these companies than other cheaper medications.

7/15/15)- In this article we have written about the ethical practices of the medical and pharmaceutical industries, but the stock brokerage industry has had ethical questions also. FINRA, one of the overseers of this area has set up a special hotline for older investors.

The Securities Helpline for Seniors at 844 57- HELP is the number to call for free assistance with a complaint that you may have against a financial advisor or brokerage firm.

(8/27/13)- Under the terms of the Affordable Care Act all pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies must report data on individual doctors and how much they received to a federal health agency, which will post it on a searchable, public website beginning September 2014.

In 2012, Pfizer Inc., the largest in revenue of all the drug companies, paid $173.2 million to U.S. health-care professionals. That figure was down from the $195.4 million it paid them in 2011.

Many of the drug companies and medical device manufacturers have been reporting those figures on their websites for several years now, but any medical company that has any dealings with Medicare or Medicaid will have to report the amounts to the federal agency.

(11/5/12)- The British Medical Journal announced that, beginning in January, it will no longer publish the results of clinical trials unless the researchers provide detailed study data on request.

It frequently happens that when the results of a study are published in medical journals, they accentuate the positives, while failing to address the issue of negative side effects.

Dr.Fiona Godlee, editor of the Journal said that she hoped other major medical journals would adopt a similar policy.

(7/12/10)- Johnson & Johnson publicly reported for the first time the names of doctors and the amounts it paid them on several of its subsidiaries websites starting June 30th, according to its spokesman, Mark Wolfe. The payments were for the first three months of this year.

Obsiian HDS LLC, a firm that aggregated the payments, J&J's Ortho-McNeil-Jansen division paid a total of $1.76 million for this period of time, while the Centocor Ortho Biotech unit paid $658,111, and its Tibotec unit was $433,250, according to Wall Street Journal calculations.

The new data covers payments exceeding $25 made directly and indirectly to U.S. physicians for participation in a speaker's bureau or for providing consulting services in support of one of J&J's U.S. marketed products. The company will continue to make the postings on a quarterly basis

The company said it would expand its reporting to include its medical-device and diagnostics unit next year.

Pfizer had previously reported that it paid $35 million to about 4,500 health-care providers in the second half of 2009. GlaxoSmithKline said it paid $14.6 million to 3,700 health professionals in the second quarter of 2009

(7/4/10)- A new report recently issued by the Senate Finance Committee on which the ranking Republican is Charles A Grassley (R-Io.) calls on medical journals, medical schools, and even the National Institute of Health (NIH) to take additional steps to ensure the integrity of the scientific articles that many doctors rely on to make treatment decisions for their patients.

In spite of many of the measures taken lately to ensure against unethical practices related to medical ghostwriting, the report indicated that there is still much improvement that is needed to be done in this area.

Even though the article might mention the fact that "editorial assistance" has been involved in the article, the role of the drug makers has not been completely revealed therein.

A pharmaceutical company may have initiated the article, chosen the medical writer and influenced the draft before it has been sent in for publication.

Senator Grassley recommended in a separate letter sent to Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the NIH, that applicants who apply for agency research grants should be required to disclose any industry support, whether financial or editorial, that they have received for articles.

(9/20/09)- According to the results of a study that was conducted by 4 of the editors of The Journal of the American Medical Association, a significant number of the articles written in six of the top medical journals in 2008 were written by ghostwriters financed by drug companies.

7.8% of the authors of 630 of the articles who responded to the questionnaire created for the study acknowledged contributions to their articles by others who qualified to be named as authors of the papers, but were not listed.

The journals named in the study were The New England Journal of Medicine (10.9%); JAMA (7.9%); The Lancelet (7.6%); PloS Medicine (7.6%); The Annals of Internal Medicine (4.9%); and Nature Medicine (2%).

Joseph S. Wislar was the lead-editor author of the study that included Annette Flanagan, Phil B. Fontanarosa and Catherine D. DeAngelis.

(8/22/09)- Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis announced that Dr. Timothy Kuklo has resigned from the faculty of the school. For additional information on this matter please see our items dated 6/25; 6/17 and 5/30/2009 below.

(8/4/09)- Strangely enough, a second situation has come to the public's attention, similar to the first situation, involving Medtronic Inc., its bone-growth product Infuse, an army doctor and a startling lack of ethics . In this latest matter, the doctor is Dr. David W. Polly Jr., who is now a medical professor at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Polly was the head of the orthopedic department at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington until 2003, and he became a Medtronic consultant upon leaving the military service. He received more than $1.14 million in fees and expenses from the company in the years 2003 through 2007.

He testified at a hearing before the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in which the transcript shows that he identified himself as a representative of a professional medical group, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. He failed to identify himself as a consultant to Medtronic. He also failed to acknowledge that Medtronic was paying him $6,000 for his appearance before the committee.

He testified that the usage of Infuse mixed with antibiotics could speed the healing of badly fractured shin bones that were also deeply infected.

He subsequently headed an animal study that received $466,000 from the Defense Department that investigated the healing ability of Infuse in connection with deeply infected shin bones.

Dr. Polly is the latest incidence of an academic researcher with a conflict of interest, and lack of ethics brought to light by the Senate Finance Committee, where Senator Charles Grassley is the ranking Republican.

The prior situation involving an army' orthopedist, Medtronic Inc., its bone-growth product Infuse and a very questionable ethics situation concerned Dr. Timothy Kuklo, as we discussed in our item dated 6/25/09 below.

(6/25/09)- Last year Medtronic Inc. provided Congress with a list of 22 consultants who worked specifically on Infuse-related matters. The payments to those doctors ranged from $100 a year to $67,600. Please see our items dated 6/17/09 and 5/30/09 below for more details on this matter

In the first few months of this year, before placing Dr. Timothy Kuklo on "inactive status" in May, it had paid him $132,453. The company also stated that it had paid the doctor $42,637 in 2006, and picked up his expenses while he worked for the Army. The company paid Dr. Kuklo almost $800,000 over the last 3 years.

Medtronic has been subpoenaed to appear before a Congressional committee investigating the whole matter with Dr. Kuklo.

(6/17/09)- Medtronic Inc. acknowledged that it had paid Dr. Timothy Kuklo, the former Army surgeon accused of falsifying research about its Infuse bone-growth product, to give speeches and train other doctors on the company's behalf. To see more on this matter, please see our item dated 5/30/09 below.

The company had initially refused to say when it had hired Dr. Kuklo as a consultant, and had supported some of his research through grants to a foundation.

Military physicians are permitted to receive money for outside activities, but they are supposed to clear these activities with appropriate superiors before proceeding to do them.

(5/30/09)- Senator Charles Grassley, (Rep.-Io) has sent letters to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Journal of Bone & Join Disease concerning the circumstances surrounding a study by Timothy R. Kuklo of a bone growth product, called Infuse, made by Medtronic Inc.

Dr. Kuklo, had been on the staff of the Washington University School of Medicine, but who now has been suspended by the school, at the time of the study. He was a surgeon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington when it is alleged that he forged the signatures of purported co-authors on the study.

Walter Reed officials determined that data in the study was based on "falsified information" and that the numbers in the study did not comport with its own numbers about soldiers' wartime injuries. The Journal published the study last year, and then, earlier this year, retracted it,

Dr. Kuklo was a consultant to the company, but Medtronic stated that he did not have an affiliation with him at the time of the study.

(5/9/09)- The Institute of Medicine, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences issued a stinging report that called on doctors, medical schools, hospitals, medical professional groups and drug makers to change the long accepted practice of gifts that can influence their professional judgments.

"It is time for medical schools, to end a number of long-accepted relationships and practices that create conflicts of interest, threaten the integrity of their missions and their reputations, and put public trust in jeopardy," the report concluded.

The report calls for Congress to pass legislation that would require drug and medical device makers to publicly disclose all payments made to doctors. Senators Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, have co-sponsored legislation that would do just that.

About one-half of the expense of medical refresher courses are paid for by the drug and medical device manufacturing companies, which the report called on to be phased out.

Dr. Bernard Lo, the director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of Cal., San Francisco headed the committee that wrote the report.

(3/22/09)- Dr. Scott S. Reuben, an anesthesiologist in Springfield Mass, who practiced at Baystate Medical Center, has admitted that he never conducted the clinical trials that he wrote about in 21 journal articles dating back to at least 1996.

Pfizer Inc. underwrote most of the trials in which Dr. Reubens found that their painkiller drugs Celebrex and Lyrica were effective against postoperative pain.

His activities were uncovered by Baystate after questions were raised about two study abstracts that he filed last spring. Baystate determined that he had not received approval to conduct human research for these studies. This led to the discovery by Baystate that Dr. Reuben had concocted data for 21 studies. Baystate has notified the journals where the study results were published and has asked that the articles be withdrawn.

Dr. Steven Shafer, the editor-in-chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, which published many of the papers, said he was considering withdrawing any study in which Dr. Reuben served a pivotal role.

(10/28/08)- Pfizer Inc. acquired Warner Lambert in 2000, a company that sold Neurontin, a medication that had been approved by the FDA for the treatment of epileptic fit seizures, and for one kind of pain related to shingles. Pfizer pleaded guilty in 2004, to felony charges that it promoted the drug for uses that were not approved by the FDA.

Pfizer paid $430 million to resolve the charges and reimburse state Medicaid programs for off label uses of Neurontin. As a matter of fact, the writer of this article used Neurontin in connection with trying to alleviate the pain associated with my bout with spinal stenosis. To read more about this matter see our article "Spinal Stenosis- A Personal Story". I found that the drug did not work to alleviate my pain associated with my spinal stenosis.

There is presently a case before the U.S. District Court in Boston, wherein Pfizer is being sued by consumer groups and third-party payers such as insurance companies and trade unions who are seeking $4.9 billion in repayment for fraudulent misrepresentation in promoting the off-label usage of Neurontin.

Papers in the case show that Pfizer sought to conceal harmful studies and clinical trials involving Neurontin.

Michael Rowbothan, the Neurontin team leader wrote in an email in 2000 saying, " I think we can limit the potential downsides of the …. Study by delaying the publication for as long as possible,". The study in question was a study done in Europe late in the 1990s by Warner-Lambert to measure Neurontin's use for diabetic nerve pain that showed that the drug did not prove effective in dealing with the patient's pain.

The study's scientific manager, Beate Roder, wrote in an email to employees after Pfizer had acquired Warner-Lambert that she had been instructed "that we should take care not to publish anything that damages Neurontin's marketing success."

In 2002, Angela Crespo, then Neurontin's senior marketing manager, emailed an outside firm that was contracted to write up the study's results, "We are not interested at all in having this paper published because it is negative!!".

(2/4/08)- In the latest example of a breach of medical ethics, a prominent diabetes expert leaked an article critical of the diabetes drug Avandia to the manufacturer of the drug, GlaxoSmithKline PLC. Dr. Steven M. Haffner of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio had been given an advance copy of the article that was to appear in The New England Journal of Medicine, since he was a member of the peer review group for the article.

In a statement issued by Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Io.), who is also the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee he stated: "The most troubling aspect of this situation is that the integrity of another aspect of the scientific process is called into question-scientific peer review". Mr. Grassley also released a copy of a letter he sent to the company asking what action Glaxo took after Dr. Haffner faxed a copy of the article to them.

An article on the matter published online by the journal Nature quoted Dr. Haffner as saying: "Why I sent it is a mystery. I don't really understand it. I wasn't feeling well. It was bad judgment."

A spokeswoman for Glaxo, Nancy Pekark said that Dr. Haffner had faxed the copy of the article to the company on May 3, more than two weeks before the article was published in the journal.

Under The New England Journal's rules, reviewers are prohibited from disclosing an article's content before publication. The University of Texas Health Center issued a statement said that it was aware of the matter and was investigating the event.

Dr. Haffner had previously disclosed that he had conducted research and served as a paid speaker for Glaxo, for which he had been paid about $75,000 since 1999.

Dr. Steven E. Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic had submitted the article in question that Dr. Haffner was peer-reviewing for publication. Dr. Nissen's article was a pooled analysis of Avandia studies that suggested that Avandia increased the risk of heart attack by more than 40%. The article was published in the journal in May 2007. Dr. Haffner had faxed a copy of the article to Glaxo 17 days before it was published.

In his study, Dr. Nissen reviewed 42 previous clinical trials of Avandia, and concluded that patients taking the drug had a 43% higher risk of suffering a heart attack than those taking other oral diabetes medications or placebo pills.

Under pressure from the FDA, Glaxo agreed to add a "black box" warning that Avandia's label describing Dr. Nissen's findings.

(12/17/07)- Jay Yadav, the former head of the Cleveland Clinics vascular intervention unit has sued the hospital over alleged defamation of character and discrimination. He further alleges that the institution is ripe with conflicts-of-interests similar to the kind that were cited as grounds for his dismissal.

Dr. Yadav was fired by the hospital in 2006 for not complying with the institution's conflict-of-interest policies. He filed his lawsuit in state court in Ohio, the state in which the clinic is located.

The clinic denied his allegations and said it planned to file a response as well as a "counter claim for substantial expenses incurred to review his research." The clinic instituted tougher conflict-of-interest policies in 2006, after an article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out the fact that many of the doctors in the clinic had undisclosed interests in companies that made some of the medical equipment used on them. The patients were never informed about this possible conflict.

It was also pointed out that many of the medical professionals received payments from the drug companies as well as the medical equipment companies for doing consulting work while never revealing this fact to the institute or their patients.

Dr. Yadov had financial stakes in two companies whose experimental products were tested on clinic patients. He was fired shortly before the Cleveland Plain Dealer had an article about his outside activities.

According to the complaint in this pending case the clinic has "widespread and pervasive" conflicts-of-interest, as is exemplified by the chief executive of the clinic Delos "Toby" Cosgrove. The clinic heavily promotes and uses an invention by Dr. Cosgrove's in patients undergoing heart valve surgery. The device is known as the Cosgrove-Edwards ring for which both the clinic and Dr. Delos receive substantial royalties. Edwards Lifesciences Corp markets the product.

Dr. Yadav lawsuit also cited the surgeon Isador Lieberman, a member of the hospital's conflict-of-interest committee, who failed to disclose his significant financial interests in Kyphon Inc. That company manufactures equipment for an orthopedic procedure that Dr. Lieberman advocated and tested at the clinic. Dr. Yadav, was born in India and also alleges discrimination in his lawsuit.

Dr. Yadav says the clinic accused him of not properly disclosing royalty payments for a device he invented to prevent blockages in patients who receive a neck stent. Among the other shareholders in Angioguard Inc., the company that acquired the technology from Dr.Yadav, which in turn was acquired by Johnson & Johnson are several other top officials at the hospital.

Dr. Kenneth Ouriel, a surgeon at the hospital received some small payments for the neck device but he did not reveal them to the clinic, and yet he was not terminated for that failure to report those payments.

Dr.Yadav said that he properly disclosed the deferred payments as early as 2002 in a document filed with a clinic review board. In 2003 he made a similar disclosure to the FDA. 

(5/28/01)-No one disagrees that advances in medicine depend on innovative and bold clinical research. Read the first half of Dr. James Le Fanu’s book, "The Rise and fall of Modern Medicine" (Carroll and Graf, 426 pp.), to become familiar with the some of the extraordinary developments in clinical medicine during the period from 1940 through the 1970s. This book reinforces a awareness that much of the advances in the effectiveness and safety of disease treatment, diagnosis and prevention results from intensive research involving human research subjects where results at first were not particularly pleasant for the individuals involved in the research.

While research is done in the interest of the health of the individual and the general public, it may have deadly consequences for the individual involved in the research. In 1966, Dr. Henry Beecher, a renowned anesthesiologist at Harvard Medical School, had a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine (1966; 274:1354-1360) in which he pointed out 22 examples of research studies that contained ethical lapses in research carried out by physician-scientists in renowned universities and published in the world leading journals. Thirty-five years later, we are still subject to such lapses.

Just prior to 1996 the World Medical Association, aware of some of the ethical dilemmas involved in medical research, issued the Declaration of Helsinki in an effort to eliminate research violations and establish ethical norms. These norms have since been amended and revised over the years. The most recent revision to the Declaration of Helsinki was in the year 2000. The Declaration of Helsinki now reads: "Medical research is only justified if there is a reasonable likelihood that the populations in which the research is carried out stand to benefit from the results of the research." It goes on to state that at the conclusion of a study, any patient participating in the study should be assured of access to the best proven therapeutic methods identified by the study. In discussing use of placebos in a study it states, " The benefits, risks, burdens and effectiveness of a new method should be tested against those of the best current prophylactic, diagnostic and therapeutic methods. This does not exclude the use of placebo or no treatment, in studies where no proven prophylactic, diagnostic or therapeutic method exists." It is considered ethical to delay or omit the use of an available treatment in order to conduct a placebo-controlled trial, provided that only temporary discomfort and no serious adverse consequences are expected, and that the study participants are fully informed about alternative forms of treatment and their right to opt for them. The well being of the individual must always take precedence over the needs of science or the interests of society.

In industrialized countries research costs continue to rise steeply. Suitable patients are in short supply, and clinical institutions are overloaded with research projects. Sponsors are seeking quicker and bigger returns on investment and are attracted to countries in which costs are less, and untreated patients plentiful. Dr. David Rothman, Professor of Social Medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, writing in the November 30, 2000 issue of The New York Review of Books, states, "Until the 1990s American medical researchers performed most of their experiments on other Americans--frequently choosing subjects who were poor and vulnerable. Now, however, they are increasingly likely to conduct their investigations in third world countries on subjects who are even poorer and (more)vulnerable."

Couple the above essay by Rothman with the fiction book "The Constant Gardener" by James Le Carre and you see interesting parallels. A substantive issue in Carre’s book is the use of poor patients by pharmaceutical companies in third world countries and the justification of drug research by the researchers. Fiction may be stranger than the truth, or is it?

Two tendencies appear to be injuring relationships between medicine and the drug industry. First, companies may frequently manipulate information in a way that goes beyond the bounds of acceptable marketing. Second the relationship between many doctors and pharmaceutical companies has become close to corrupt. A recent study at the University of California-San Francisco found that a third of faculty investigators received payments from companies for delivering lectures and accepting consultancies. Some would question the ethics of such relationships.

What about the use of older individuals with dementia in medical research? What ethical questions are raised about this group of individuals? What does the demented individual understand about the research projects in which they take part? Again according to an essay ("The Shame of Medical Research") by Dr. Rothman in The New York Review of Books (Nov. 30, 2000) "[I] n the United States, where consent has been better investigated, anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of patients and subjects do not understand what it is that they have agreed to. Among two hundred patients treated at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, 40% did not know the purpose or the nature of the procedure and 45% could not give one major risk or cite a possible complication resulting from it." A demented individual cannot understand any of the possible implications of the research study, let alone the aim of the study or the nature of the adverse effects if some invasive procedure is involved.

In the USA, federal agencies sponsor and regulate research, but usually delegate responsibility beyond that assumed under the "Common Rule" to Institutional Review Boards (IRB) at academic medical centers. The IRBs monitor all research. No research can proceed without its approval. Most of the members of these Boards are researcher, whose objectivity may be clouded by collegiality. We have been told that assorted egos, ambitions, rivalries and moments of genius make these meetings "interesting", "productive" and "contentious", not necessarily in that order.

Today institutions seem to be linking up with private drug and other profit making organizations in order to reap the financial benefits of their research. Many of these agreements give the drug companies "editorial rights", enabling them to "control" the flow of information about the drug, for which they have a strong financial incentive and enthusiasm to get into clinical use. The sponsors of these agreements, the drug companies, are seeking quicker and bigger returns on investments. This could make for some "unintentional" overlooking of certain adverse effects of the drug. Who could ever forget that during the years between 1956 and 1962 the drug thalidomide caused as many as twelve thousand birth defects. According to Richard Horton’s review of the book "Dark Remedy: The Impact of Thalidomide and Its Revival as a Vital Medicine" by Trent Stephens and Rock Brynner (Perseus Press) "Medical journals in the late1950s did much to create widespread clinical enthusiasm for thalidomide. The Lancet ran an advertisement claiming that thalidomide had ‘no known toxicity’ and was ‘free from untoward effects.’ …the drug was ‘outstandingly safe.’" When reports of nerve and muscle disorders were reported the drug company labeled the reactions ‘rare.’"

A positive thing to come out of this dreadful situation was the Kefauver-Harris amendments to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic act of 1938, which set up guidelines for drug approval that included attempts to withstand commercial pressures placed on the FDA.

Research into the causes and drug treatment of dementia continues to grow as witnessed by the vast numbers of research articles and the large list of drugs in the different clinical phases of testing. Health proxies and powers of attorney are ways of planning for the time one is unable to make decisions effecting treatment. These forms of advanced consent enable the individual to issue instructions authorizing future research participation. However, individuals need to understand that research studies may expose them to relatively substantial psychological burdens or physical risks, or both, without reasonable prospect of direct health benefit. The desire to do something about the medical condition of the patient may drive the authorized person to make decisions that can unduly expose the person to harm, simply because the choice of doing nothing about the current medical condition is too threatening or the corollary belief that it is important to take action because it may help.

Can the individual who signs a health proxy or power of attorney understand what would be involved in the research study, when such study will occur at some future date with no advanced knowledge of the tasks and procedures involved in the study? How is research participation understood once decisional capacity is lost? We do know that people have difficulty foreseeing how they will respond to future illness situations. (See: Hibbard JH., Slovic P., Jewett JJ. Informing Consumer Decisions in Health Care: Implications from Decision Research. Millbank Quarterly. 1997; 75: 395-406.) Extrapolating from this study suggests that any research involving advanced consent, where the individual is not aware of the nature of the research, should not involve an intervention presenting more than "a minor increase over minimal risk." In NYS, this is defined as "more than a remote possibility of substantial or prolonged pain, discomfort or distress; or clinically significant deterioration of a medical or mental condition." It would call for scrupulous attention to protocol regimen, especially the potential adverse effects and spelling out the safeguards that promote the welfare of the incapable participant during the research process. It also must provide access to the best-proven therapeutic methods identified by the study. This should be especially true in case of the elderly, now that researchers are trying to involve them more in their protocols.

Research is a necessary step in improving the health of society. Patients involved in this research need to be protected. It is the ethical responsibility of the researcher to make sure patients understand the nature of the research (risk-benefits), get the benefit of the most sophisticated treatment available and is not exposed to "a minor increase over minimal risk."


Allan Rubin and Harold Rubin, MS, ABD, CRC, Guest Lecturer
updated October8, 2020

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