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Michael Poulin,PhD, has joined the faculty at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York (SUNY) as an AssistantProfessor of Psychology. Dr. Poulin was a post-doctoral fellow at CBSSM for twoyears, under the mentorship of StephanieBrown, PhD.  During this time he was anactive member of the CBSSM research community and a delightful colleague. Dr. Poulin's research focuses on the effects of stress on health and well-being, especiallythe ways people cope with stressful events. He examines how people's beliefsabout the world, including religious beliefs and beliefs about thetrustworthiness of others, influence adjustment to stress.  

Should this patient get a liver transplant? (Nov-08)

There aren't enough donor organs to go around for patients who need aliver transplant. This sometimes forces doctors to make tough choices.If you were the doctor, how would you decide in the following scenario?  There aren't enough donor organs to go around for patients who need a liver transplant. This sometimes forces doctors to make tough choices. If you were the doctor, how would you decide in the following scenario?Suppose there is a person who develops acute liver failure (ALF). While waiting for a liver transplant, this person gets sicker and sicker. When an organ is finally available, the chance that this person will survive WITH a transplant is only 42% at five years after the transplant. Since the average survival for most patients who receive a liver transplant is 75% at five years, the doctor wonders if it would be better to save the liver for someone else. Two possible ethical principles may guide the doctor in making this decision. 

Using the principle of URGENCY, the doctor would give the first available organ to the sickest patient on the transplant waiting list, the ALF patient, because she/he is otherwise likely to die within a few days.

Using the principle of UTILITARIANISM, the doctor would try to maximize the quality and quantity of life of all the people on the transplant list. Let's say there are 25 other patients currently on the waiting list, and transplanting the ALF patient increases their risk of death by 2% each, for a cumulative harm of 50%. Since this harm of 50% is more than the benefit to the ALF patient (42%), the liver should be saved for someone else on the list.

A third possibility is for the doctor to weigh both URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM in making a decision about a transplant.

If you were the ALF patient's doctor, what would you base your decision about a transplant on?
  • URGENCY (sickest patient on the list gets preference)
  • UTILITARIANISM (maximize benefit for the entire waiting list)
  • A combination of URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM

How do your answers compare?

There's no absolutely right or wrong answer in this case—the choice depends on which of several competing ethical principles or which combination of principles you follow. In choosing a combination of URGENCY and UTILITARIANISM, you've decided to try to balance the needs of the sickest patient with the needs of all the people on the transplant waiting list.

CBDSM researcher Michael Volk, MD, is the lead author on a recent article that tackles difficult decisions like this one. Volk and his colleagues examined a method to incorporate competing ethical principles in a decision analysis of liver transplantation for a patient with ALF. Currently, liver transplantation in the United States is determined by the principle of “sickest first," with patients at highest risk for death on the waiting list receiving first priority. In other words, the principle of URGENCY is paramount. However, most experts agree that, given the limited supply of organs, there should be a cutoff for posttransplant survival below which transplantation is no longer justified.

Where does society draw this line? And what framework can we use for ethical guidance?

Decision analysis of resource allocation would utilize the principle of UTILITARIANISM, to maximize the broad social benefit. But surveys of the general public have shown that most people prefer to temper utilitarianism with other considerations, such as equal opportunity, racial equity, and personal responsibility. Another factor that might be considered is the principle of fair chances. This is the idea that patients who have not had a chance at a liver transplant should receive priority over those who have already had once chance at a transplant.

Volk constructed a mathematical model (Markov model) to test the use of competing ethical principles. First he compared the benefit of transplantation for a patient with ALF to the harm caused to other patients on the waiting list, to determine the lowest acceptable five-year survival rate for the transplanted ALF patient. He found that giving a liver to the ALF patient resulted in harms to the others on the waiting list that cumulatively outweighed the benefit of transplantation for the ALF patient. That is, using UTILITARIANISM as the sole guiding ethical principle gave a clear threshold for the transplant decision: if the ALF patient did not have a five-year survival rate of at least 48%, she/he should not receive a transplant under this principle.

But UTILITARIANISM is not always the sole guiding ethical principle. When Volk adjusted the model to incorporate UTILITARIANISM, URGENCY, and other ethical principles such as fair chances, he got different thresholds. Depending on the combination of ethical principles used, Volk and his colleagues have shown that the threshold for an acceptable posttransplant survival at five years for the ALF patient would range from 25% to 56%.

The authors of this study conclude:

"Our model is an improvement over clinical judgment for several reasons. First, the complexity of the various competing risks makes clinical decision making challenging without some form of quantitative synthesis such as decision analysis. Second, a systematic approach helps ensure that all patients are treated equally. Most important, this study provides moral guidance for physicians who must simultaneously act as patient advocates and as stewards of scarce societal resources."

Volk ML, Lok ASF, Ubel PA, Vijan S, Beyond utilitarianism: A method for analyzing competing ethical principles in a decision analysis of liver transplantation, Med Decis Making 2008;28, 763-772.


More information:

Beyond utilitarianism: A method for analyzing competing ethical principles in a decision analysis of liver transplantation.
Volk M, Lok AS, Ubel PA, Vijan S. Medical Decision Making 2008;28(5):763-772.


CBSSM Seminar: Peter A Ubel, MD

Tue, April 10, 2018, 3:00pm
Add to Calendar
NCRC, Building 16, Room 266C

Peter A Ubel, MD

Professor of Business Administration
Madge and Dennis T. McLawhorn University Professor
Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy
Professor of Medicine
Affiliate of the Duke Initiative for Science & Society
Member of the Duke Cancer Institute


In order to better serve our faculty needs, we have merged the Bioethics Working Group (BWG) with the Program in Health Communication and Decision Making (PICHD) Working Group. Both working groups have similar goals and many of the project presented at these working groups touch both on bioethics and health communication and decision making.

Working group meetings provide an opportunity for investigators to receive feedback on research proposals, drafts of papers, grant applications, or any other aspects of projects at any stage of development. These sessions are to help move forward a project in any stage of its development. So if your project is in the works, in the planning stages, or perhaps it is still just an idea, you design the session and determine how to best solicit the help and support of your colleagues.

Some examples could be:
  • Outline sketch of specific aims for a grant. (Presenter would provide a one page summary before the session)
  • Outline of a proposed paper or paper in draft stage. (Discussion would be based on one page summary. Presenter would walk the group through the outline or draft, and solicit feedback on significance and coherence of ideas)
  • Determining a paper’s relevance. (Presenter could ask group members to read a paper, in order to discuss/determine if that paper is crucial to the project that the person has in mind-- different from a journal club exercise.)

PIHCD usually meets on Wednesday or Thursdays at 2 or 3 pm in B004E. To be added to the PIHCD email list, contact Nicole Exe at OR join our email list.

CBSSM Seminar: Aaron Scherer, PhD

Wed, February 03, 2016, 3:00pm to 4:00pm
NCRC, Building 16, Room 266C

Aaron Scherer, PhD

CBSSM Postdoctoral Fellow

The Language of Medicine

Is the way we talk about health and medicine simply expressive or does the language we use actually change how we perceive and respond to health risks and medical interventions? Aaron Scherer will discuss a number of studies that explore how metaphors, labels, and explanations may shape our health-related perceptions and behavior.

CBSSM Seminar: Christian Vercler, MD

Thu, February 25, 2016, 3:00pm to 4:00pm
NCRC, Building 16, Room 266C

Christian Vercler, MD

Clinical Assistant Professor, Plastic Surgery
Co-Chair, Pediatric Ethics Committee, C.S. Mott Children's Hospital
Co-Chair, Adult Ethics Committee, University of Michigan Hospital and Health Systems
Co-Director, Clinical Ethics Program, CBSSM (RESCHEDULED)


CBSSM Seminar: Darin Zahuranec, MD

Wed, January 20, 2016, 3:00pm to 4:00pm
NCRC, Building 16, Room 266C

Darin Zahuranec, MD

Assistant Professor, Neurology

Title:  Improving decisions on life-sustaining treatments after stroke

Abstract:  Individuals with acute stroke face the sudden onset of new deficits, along with a need to make many decisions about medical treatments with impact on the potential for survival and long-term disability. This talk will review the challenges in decision-making after acute stroke and discuss possible solutions for the future.


Check out Brian Zikmund-Fisher's article in Risk Sense: “Do You Know What Messages Your Patient Stories Are Really Sending?" in which he discusses a purpose, content, and valence-based taxonomy of patient narratives in decision aids.

 More information can also be found in:  Victoria A. Shaffer and Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher (2013). All Stories Are Not Alike: A Purpose-, Content-, and Valence-Based Taxonomy of Patient Narratives in Decision Aids. Med Decis Making, 33: 4-13. doi:10.1177/0272989X12463266


CBSSM Seminar: Julie Wright Nunes, MD, MPH

Wed, May 17, 2017, 3:00pm
NCRC, Building 16, Room 266C

Julie Wright Nunes, MD, MPH
Assistant Professor, Internal Medicine

Title: Patient Education and Care: Challenges and Opportunities in Chronic Kidney Disease

Abstract: Twenty million people, or 20% of U.S. adults ages 60 and older, have chronic kidney disease (CKD). CKD is a significant public health threat carrying high risk of morbidity, mortality, and renal failure. Health behavior theory suggests that patient motivation and healthy behavior change require patients to have knowledge of their chronic condition, as well as the self-efficacy and skills to do what is needed to stay healthy. The chronic care model promotes early patient engagement in care. Yet, less than 20% of  patients with CKD are aware of their diagnosis. Even patients who are aware often do not understand the implications of their CKD diagnosis or what they need to do to optimize their health. Dr. Wright Nunes will discuss her research aimed to develop, test, and disseminate sustainable patient-centric education and coaching support interventions to improve quality of care and outcomes in patients who have CKD.

Does order matter when distributing resources? (Jun-03)

Should people with more severe health problems receive state funding for treatment before people with less severe health problems? See how your opinion compares with the opinions of others.

Imagine that you are a government official responsible for deciding how state money is spent on different medical treatments. Your budget is limited so you cannot afford to offer treatment to everyone who might benefit. Right now, you must choose to spend money on one of two treatments.

  • Treatment A treats a life threatening illness. It saves patients' lives and returns them to perfect health after treatment
  • Treatment B treats a different life threatening illness. It saves patients' lives but is not entirely effective and leaves them with paraplegia after treatment. These patients are entirely normal before their illness but after treatment will have paraplegia.

Suppose the state has enough money to offer Treatment A to 100 patients. How many patients would have to offered Treatment B so that you would have difficulty choosing which treatment to offer?

How do your answers compare?

The average person said that it would become difficult to decide which treatment to offer when 1000 people were offered Treatment B.

What if you had made another comparison before the one you just made?

In the study, some people were asked to make a comparison between saving the lives of otherwise-healthy people and saving the lives of people who already had paraplegia. After they made that comparison, they made the comparison you just completed. The average person in that group said it would take 126 people offered Treatment B to make the decision difficult. The differences are shown in the graph below

Why is this important?

The comparison you made is an example of a person tradeoff (PTO). The PTO is one method used to find out the utilities of different health conditions. These utilities are basically measures of the severities of the conditions. More severe conditions have a lower utility, and less severe conditions have a higher utility, on a scale of 0 to 1. Insurance companies, the government, and other organizations use these utilities as a way to decide which group to funnel money into for treatments.

On the surface, it seems like basing the money division on the severity of a condition is a good and fair method, since theoretically the people who are in the greatest need will be treated first. However, the PTO raises issues of fairness and equity that aren't accounted for in other utility elicitation methods like the time tradeoff (TTO) and rating scale (RS).

For example, when asked to decide how many people with paraplegia would have to be saved to equal saving 100 healthy people, many people say 100; that is, they think it is equally important to save the life of someone with paraplegia and a healthy person. Going by values obtained using the TTO or RS, an insurance company may conclude that 160 people with paraplegia (using a utility of .6) would have to be saved to make it equal to saving 100 healthy people. This would mean that less benefit would be gotten by saving someone with paraplegia, and thus they might not cover expenses for lifesaving treatments for people with paraplegia as much as they would for a healthy person. The PTO shows that many people would not agree with doing this, even though their own responses to other utility questions generated the policy in the first place.

For more information see:

Ubel PA, Richardson J, Baron J. Exploring the role of order effects in person trade-off elicitations. Health Policy, 61(2):189-199, 2002.