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Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, has found that 29% of cancer research published in high-impact journals disclosed a conflict of interest, including industry funding of the study or a study author who was an industry employee. "Given the frequency we observed for conflicts of interest and the fact that conflicts were associated with study outcomes, I would suggest that merely disclosing conflicts is probably not enough. It's becoming increasingly clear that we need to look more at how we can disentangle cancer research from industry ties," comments Jagsi. The study, which has received wide media attention, was published in the journal Cancer, online at

Additional authors are Nathan Sheets, Aleksandra Jankovic, Amy R. Motomura, Sudha Amarnath, and Peter A. Ubel.

Genomics, Health and Society

This special interest group is led by Dr. Scott Roberts who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the School of Public Health as well as the Director and Co-Director of the Public Health Genetics Certificate Program and the Dual Degree Program in Public Health and Genetic Counseling, respectively. Research within this area examines the ethical, social and behavioral implications of advances in genomics. CBSSM serves as a crucial locus for facilitating collaborations across disciplines and units. In fact, several groups across campus have invited us to collaborate on the study of bioethical issues related to burgeoning genomics-related research; these partners include investigators at U-M’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Michigan Center for Translational Pathology, and the Division of Pediatric Genetics.

Topics of interest include the following:


Health, Justice, and Community

The special interest group in Health, Justice and Community is led by Dr. Susan Dorr Goold, a Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine and Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health. Research in this area aims to improve knowledge, understanding, and practice in resource allocation and distributive justice, ethics of health policy (public and private) and community engagement, with the overarching goal of improving health equity. Scholarly approaches to the important and enduring questions include a variety of social science methods as well as conceptual and philosophical analysis. Surveys, mixed methods research, community-based participatory research and deliberative procedures represent particular strengths. Research that falls within this area includes topics such as:

  • Deliberative public views on health and health care spending priorities
  • Resource allocation decisions by local public health officials
  • Public views about policies during public health emergencies
  • Community priorities for health research
  • Reproductive justice
  • Physicians’ and patients’ views about physician stewardship
  • Conflicts of interest and obligation for physicians and scientists
  • Ways to ameliorate health disparities


Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury (Jun-09)

How should the US judicial system determine compensation for "pain and suffering"  Take a look at a complicated case. 

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

Let's suppose that you're a member of a jury for a court case involving an industrial accident. A 29-year-old employee, Charlie, has suffered brain damage in this accident.

Charlie was once a skilled worker who operated complex machinery. Since the accident, he has functioned cognitively at the level of a three-year-old child, and there is no chance for improvement of his state. Charlie has no visible scars on his body and is not experiencing physical pain from the accident.
Furthermore, as a result of the brain damage, Charlie is emotionally happier than he was before the injury. Several witnesses have testified that Charlie was somewhat volatile before the accident—he got angry easily and had bouts of sadness. The witnesses noted that since the accident Charlie is always happy, despite his cognitive impairment.
You are now in the jury room. You and your fellow jury members have decided that the factory where Charlie worked had inadequate safety precautions. The jury will return a verdict for the plaintiff, Charlie. The jury has already agreed on a sum to compensate Charlie for his medical expenses, his ongoing medical care, and lost wages for the rest of his life.
Charlie's attorney has asked for an additional monetary award for pain and suffering. Which statement below most closely describes your thoughts, as a juror trying to decide on an award for pain and suffering?
  • Charlie should get a very large award for pain and suffering, since his life overall has been so adversely affected by the accident.
  • Charlie should get a moderate award for pain and suffering, since he has suffered cognitive impairment, but he does not have ongoing physical pain.
  • Charlie should get a very small award for pain and suffering, since he is actually happier now than he was before the accident.
  • I don't think that the US judicial system should allow awards for pain and suffering at all.
  • I'm not sure what pain and suffering means in a legal sense, and I don't know what to award to Charlie.

How do your answers compare?

In a recent article, CBDSM's Peter A. Ubel and Carnegie Mellon University's George Loewenstein challenge the conventional view that awards for pain and suffering should be made literally as compensation for feelings of pain and of suffering. Ubel and Loewenstein argue from their expertise in the psychology of judgment, decision making, adaptation, and valuation of health states.

They cite many studies showing that people adapt well to very serious disabilities, such as paraplegia and blindness, returning fairly quickly to near-normal levels of happiness after a period of adjustment. Thus, if juries make pain-and-suffering awards literally on the basis of misery, such awards would be unacceptably small.

But Ubel and Loewenstein delve further. Even though people with serious disabilities have normal levels of happiness, they would still prefer not to have the disabilities. "We believe that the reason for this discrepancy between hedonic measures and stated preferences . . . is that people care about many things that are not purely hedonic, such as meaning, capabilities, and range of feeling and experience."

In enlarging the definition of pain and suffering, Ubel and Loewenstein do not propose to merely add to the factors that a jury must take into consideration in the current judicial system. Indeed, the authors find several problems with the current system, including inequities in compensation and the evaluation of injuries in isolation. They include in their article a three-part proposal for a radical change in judicial procedure.

First, they would recruit a random panel of citizens to compile and categorize injuries. Groups of injuries would be ranked on the basis of the appropriate level of compensation for those injuries. This panel would call on experts to inform their decisions. "Decisions about an injury's proper category would take into account not only the emotional consequences of the injury but also the person's ability to function across important life domains—social functioning, work functioning, sexual functioning, sleep, and the like."

This list of grouped and ranked injuries would have some similarities to the list of health conditions that the State of Oregon created in the 1990s to help allocate Medicaid funds. Another existing model for this list would be lists used to make decisions about workers' compensation claims—for example, benefits for loss of a thumb are twice as great as benefits for loss of a second finger.

Second, Ubel and Loewenstein propose a mechanism for determining monetary damages. Using the list produced by the citizen group described above, federal or state legislators could determine a maximum award for pain and suffering. Based on this damage cap, a range of awards would be set for each category of injuries.

Third, the juries would enter in, using the guidelines set up in the steps described above and then tailoring awards to the individual circumstances of each case. Under this plan, juries would do what people tend to do best: compare and rank things. Ubel and Loewenstein note that "juries could help determine if the victim has extenuating circumstances that should drive the award to either the lower or upper end of acceptable compensation for that group of injuries. . . Our proposal does not do away with jury trials but instead enables juries to involve themselves in the kind of judgments they are best suited to make."

Ubel and Loewenstein conclude, "The determination of pain-and-suffering awards should be revised to take account of recent advances in understanding human judgment and decision making."

Read the article:

Ubel PA, Loewenstein G.Pain & suffering awards: It shouldn't be (just) about pain & suffering. Journal of Legal Studies 2008;37(2):S195-216.

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.

Give me colostomy or give me death! (Aug-06)

Click to decide between death and living with a colostomy. Which would you choose? Are you sure?

Given the choice, would you choose immediate death,or living with a colostomy (where part of your bowel is removed and you have bowel movements into a plastic pouch attached to your belly)?

  •  Immediate Death
  •  Colostomy

Think about what it would be like if you were diagnosed with colon cancer. You are given the option of choosing between two surgical treatments.The first is a surgery that could result in serious complications and the second has no chance of complications but has a higher mortality rate.

Possible outcome Surgery 1
Surgery 2 
Cure without complication 80% 80%
Cure with colostomy 1%  
Cure with chronic diarrhea 1%  
Cure with intermittent bowel obstruction 1%  
Cure with wound infection 1%  
No cure (death) 16% 20%

If you had the type of colon cancer described above, which surgery do you think you would choose?

  • Surgery 1
  • Surgery 2

How do your answers compare?

In fact, past research has shown that 51% people choose the surgery with a higher death rate, even though most of them initially preferred each of the four surgical complications, including colostomy, over immediate death.

Are you saying what you really mean?

CBDSM investigators Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Angela Fagerlin, Peter Ubel, teamed up with Jennifer Amsterlaw, to see if they could reduce the number of people choosing the surgery with the higher rate of death and therefore reducing the discrepancy. A large body of past research has shown that people are notoriously averse to uncertainty. The investigators had a hunch that uncertainty could account for some of the discrepancy. Surgery 1 has a greater number of ambiguous outcomes, perhaps causing people to be averse to it. In an effort to minimize this uncertainty, the investigators laid out a series of scenarios outlining different circumstances and presentations of the two surgeries. For example the research presented some of the participants with a reframing of the surgery information, such as:

Possible outcome Surgery 1
Surgery 2 
Cured without complication 80% 80%
Cured, but with one of the following complications: colostomy, chronic diarrhea, intermittent bowl obstruction, or wound infection 4%  
No cure (death) 16% 20%

The investigators believed by grouping all of the complications together that people would be more apt to chose the surgery with the lower mortality rate, because seeing a single group of undesirable outcomes, versus a list, may decrease some of the ambiguity from previous research.

Although none of the manipulations significantly reduced the percentage of participants selecting Surgery 2, the versions that yielded the lowest preference for this surgery all grouped the risk of the four possible complications into a single category, as in the example shown above.

Why these findings are important

Over the past several decades there has been a push to give patients more information so they can make decisions that are consistent with their personal preferences. On the other hand there is a growing psychological literature revealing people's tendency to make choices that are in fact inconsistent with their own preferences; this is a dilemma. Because the present research suggests that the discrepancy between value and surgery choice is extremely resilient, much research still needs to be done in order to understand what underlies the discrepancy, with the goal of eliminating it.

The research reported in this decision of the month is currently in press. Please come back to this page in the near future for a link to the article.

Read the article:

Can avoidance of complications lead to biased healthcare decisions?
Amsterlaw J, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Fagerlin A, Ubel PA. Judgment and Decision Making 2006;1(1):64-75.





The Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine is supported by the Dean's Office at University of Michigan Medical School, the Office of Clinical Affairs, and the Department of Internal Medicine.

CBSSM has strong research ties with numerous other units at the University of Michigan, including the Department of Psychology, the School of Public Health, the School of Information, and the Survey Research Center at the Institute for Social Research.

Of particular interest to those in the field of genomics is the ELSI Personal Genomics group at the University of Michigan: Exploring the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Personal Genomics. 

In the broader realm of decision making, the Decision Consortium group at the University of Michigan is an excellent resource, offering weekly forums during the academic year. 

Is it disgusting? (May-08)

People vary in their attitudes toward physical disabilities. Give us your reactions, and we'll tell you the results of surveys of the general public--and of actual patients.










I try to avoid letting any part of my body touch the toilet seat in a public restroom, even when it appears clean.





It would make me uncomfortable to hear a couple making love in the next room of a hotel.





It would bother me tremendously to touch a dead body.





Even if I were hungry, I would not eat a bowl of my favorite soup if it had been stirred by a used-but thoroughly washed- fly-swatter





I am bothered by the odor caused by passing gas.





The smell of other persons' bowel movements disgusts me.





Consider the following

Now we'd like you to think about a specific health condition. Please read this scenario carefully so that you can answer some questions. Imagine you have a colostomy. A colostomy is an operation involving the surgical redirection of your bowels through a hole created in your gut. This hole is called a stoma. Waste passes through your intestines and out the stoma into a bag, which you must empty several times a day. If you wear relatively loose clothing, this bag won't be visible underneath your garments. Occasionally, you'll experience odors and noises caused by gas and waste passing through the stoma into the bag. There's also the chance that the colostomy bag may leak if it's allowed to fill past capacity. Although you'll be restricted from lifting very heavy objects, your daily activities won't otherwise be greatly affected by the colostomy.

To what extent does your colostomy make you feel embarrassed or socially uncomfortable?
Not at all 1       2       3       4       5       6       7       8       9        10 Very Much
To what extent does your colostomy make you feel stigmatized?
Not at all 1       2       3       4       5       6       7       8       9        10 Very Much

How do your answers compare?

Do your responses to the six questions on the disgust scale correlate with the stigmatization you expressed related to your imaginary colostomy?

In their national survey of the general public (people without colostomies), CBDSM researchers found that people who reported a higher level of disgust sensitivity responded more negatively to colostomy.

Current and former colostomy patients were also surveyed. In these groups, patients with higher disgust sensitivity had more difficulty adjusting to life with a colostomy. Specifically,colostomy patients with higher disgust sensitivity felt more stigmatized in society by their colostomy and felt more bothered by colostomy symptoms, such as leakage. Dr. Dylan Smith and his colleagues postulate that people who have a pre-existing high sensitivity to disgusting stimuli will be less likely to adjust well to life with a colostomy. Alternatively, it could be that people who adjust successfully to a colostomy do so in part by reducing their sensitivity to certain kinds of disgusting stimuli.

If future studies show that we can predict that patients with high disgust sensitivity are likely to have more difficulty adjusting to a colostomy, health-care teams can then seek ways to de-sensitize responses to bowel functioning, in order to aid patients in their adaptation to life with a colostomy. Further, many people with inflammatory bowel syndrome can choose whether or not to have a colostomy for relief of their symptoms. For these patients, a clear understanding of disgust sensitivity could be a factor in helping to make an informed choice about elective colostomy.

Certainly this research suggests that disgust plays a role in perceived and actual stigmatization of disabled patients. Previous studies of patients' adjustment to disability have focused on general responses to adversity, taking into account their social support, their coping style, or their optimism, for example. The uniqueness of this recent CBDSM study is that it considers how the specific challenges of a disability interact with a personality trait relevant to that disability: disgust sensitivity. This personality trait might also be linked to other health conditions, such as amputation or incontinence. In addition, personality traits other than disgust might affect patients' adaptation to other disabilities.

Read the article:

Sensitivity to disgust, stigma, and adjustment to life with a colostomy
Smith DM, Loewenstein G, Rozin P, Sherriff RL, Ubel PA. Journal of Research in Personality 2007;41(4):787–803.

The Disgust Scale used here is adapted from the work of Haidt J, McCauley C, Rozin P. Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences. 1994; 16(5): 701-713.


Erica Sutton, PhD


Dr. Erica Sutton was a CBSSM Postdoctoral Research Fellow, 2013-2015. She is an interdisciplinary social scientist engaged in social and behavioral science research that explores the health care experiences of individuals living with rare genetic conditions; the manner in which biotechnologies shape personal experience and social life; and the ethical implications of these technologies for individuals, public health, social policy, health care institutions, and communities.

Last Name: 

Susan Goold, MD, MHSA, MA


Susan Dorr Goold, M.D., M.H.S.A., M.A., studies the allocation of scarce healthcare resources, especially the perspectives of patients and the public. Results from projects using the CHAT (Choosing Healthplans All Together) allocation game have been published and presented in national and international venues. CHAT won the 2003 Paul Ellwood Award and Dr. Goold is listed in the Foundation for Accountability's database of Innovators and Visionaries. Dr.

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