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Drilling for Answers (Sep-08)

Find out about some experimental treatments for Parkinson's Disease. And then decide how you'd respond if you had a chance to participate in this research. In this interactive decision, we’re going to ask you about some experimental treatments for Parkinson’s Disease.

What is Parkinson’s Disease?

Up to 1 million Americans are currently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a brain disease that gradually worsens over many years and causes tremors, stiffness, slowness of movement, and balance problems. Some people with Parkinson’s Disease also experience changes in memory, concentration, and mood.

The average age at onset of symptoms is 65, but 5% to 10% have onset before the age of 45. The symptoms are caused by the death of cells in the brain that make a chemical called dopamine. Medications that are available to treat Parkinson’s Disease provide more dopamine to the brain or mimic the action of dopamine in the brain. In early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, symptoms generally respond well to medications. Over time, the medications become less effective and may cause more side effects.

What treatments are researchers developing?

One experimental procedure to treat moderate to advanced Parkinson’s Disease is gene transfer, which involves neurosurgery to insert a gene into the brain, to lower the side effects of medications and to increase the effectiveness of medications. Note that no stem cells or fetal cells are used. The patient is sedated but remains awake. The scalp is numbed by injections of local anesthetics (like Novocaine), so the patient should not feel discomfort. The surgeon drills two small holes into the skull and injects a liquid containing the gene on each side of the brain into areas known to be affected in Parkinson’s Disease.

How would gene transfer surgery be tested?

To see if the gene transfer surgery is truly effective, investigators need to compare a group that receives the gene transfer surgery with a group that does not. People would be randomly assigned (e.g., by flipping a coin) to one of the two groups. This kind of study could be done in two ways.

  • An open study could be done, where everyone knows who has and who has not received the gene transfer. One half of the patients would receive their usual medications only. The other half would receive their usual medications plus the gene transfer surgery.

  • A blinded study could be done, where neither the patient nor the evaluating researcher knows who has and who has not received the gene transfer. One half of the patients would receive their usual medications plus gene transfer surgery. The other half of the patients would receive their usual medications plus “sham surgery.” Patients receiving sham surgery have the two small holes drilled into the skull. But the protective coverings in the brain are not disturbed, and there is no insertion of any material into the brain.

    In a blinded study, only the surgeon would know who has received the gene transfer surgery and who has received sham surgery. If the gene transfer surgery is found to be both safe and effective, those in the sham surgery group would have the option of receiving the gene transfer at a later date without cost, using the holes drilled during the sham surgery.

What are the risks of these studies?

For surgery patients in both an open study and a blinded study, the surgery poses potential risks. There is a 1% to 4% risk of bleeding into the brain (usually minor, but there is a less than 1% chance that it could result in death or substantial disability). There is also a 1% to 5% risk of infection developing in the skin or brain, which would be treated with antibiotics. Overall, the risk of bleeding and infection is smaller for sham surgery than for actual gene transfer surgery.

Those subjects receiving the gene transfer surgery would face additional risks, including the possibility of brain tumors, inflammation of the brain, and a worsening of the Parkinson’s Disease. Patients in pilot studies have been followed for only one year, so longer-term effects are not known.

What are the pros and cons of the two kinds of studies?

When deciding whether or not to adopt a new procedure, it’s important to get accurate, unbiased evidence. If we adopt a new procedure that is unsafe or ineffective, people will end up receiving unnecessary surgeries. If we fail to adopt an effective procedure, we miss the opportunity to offer people a treatment that could benefit them.

Most, but not all, researchers in the field believe that the blinded study, using sham surgery, would provide better quality data than the open study. These researchers worry that if people know which procedure they receive, the results of the study may be difficult to interpret because expectations of both the patient and the evaluating researcher can unintentionally bias the results.

However, some people, including some researchers, worry that a study using sham surgery may not be worth the risks and burdens. The patients with Parkinson’s Disease who get the sham surgery undergo a neurosurgical procedure that provides no benefit to them, while being exposed to the risks and burdens of the procedure. There is also the worry that people with moderate to advanced Parkinson’s Disease are vulnerable to exploitation because having a serious, incurable illness may put them in a desperate situation.

Now, you decide!

Imagine that you have moderate to advanced Parkinson’s Disease. You can do most things independently, but involuntary movements interfere with your routine activities. Daily chores take twice as long compared to people without Parkinson’s Disease. For some parts of the day, your movement is extremely slow and you need help with daily activities.

You are asked to participate in either an open study or a blinded (sham surgery) study. Which study would you choose to participate in?
  • Blinded study (sham surgery)
  • Open study
  • Would not participate

Researchers have found that only about 35% of the general population would choose, as you did, to participate in the blinded study. As reported in a 2008 article in the journal Movement Disorders, about 55% of the general population would choose the open study, and the remaining 10% said they would not participate.

When these same questions were posed to people who actually have Parkinson’s Disease, the response was quite different: 24.5% picked the blinded study, 41.5% picked the open study, and 34% said they would not participate. The researchers observe that patients with chronic illness adapt to their disabilities; the people with Parkinson’s Disease might have felt that they had less to gain or more to lose from the benefits and risks associated with a trial involving surgery. Alternatively, people without Parkinson’s Disease may have over-estimated the impact that disability might have on them or underestimated their ability to function.

In this study, people were also asked to imagine that they were members of an ethics review committee deciding whether to allow certain studies. About 81% of respondents said that they would definitely or probably allow the open study for gene transfer. 55% said that they would definitely or probably allow the blinded (sham surgery) study. These results were the same for both the general population and people with Parkinson’s Disease. In other words, a very large majority of both Parkinson’s patients and non-Parkinson’s patients endorsed the open study as ethically acceptable. A majority endorsed sham surgery as an ethically acceptable control condition.

In analyzing these results and reading the written remarks added by the respondents, the researchers comment, “Education seems to play a strong role in people’s willingness to take a more societal perspective and balance the burdens to participants with the overall scientific and societal benefit. . . Those opposed to sham surgery appeared to have an intrinsic objection to blinding, and to focus on the invasive nature of the sham surgery per se . . .Given the complexity of the topic, it may be that laypersons, especially those with less education, may need more opportunity to learn and deliberate on the issues.”

Interestingly, scientists researching Parkinson’s Disease were presented with these same questions in a related study (Kim SY, Frank S, Holloway R, Zimmerman C, Wilson R, Kieburtz K. Science and ethics of sham surgery: A survey of Parkinson disease clinical researchers. Arch Neurol 2005;62:1357-1360.) Only 50% of these clinical researchers would allow open studies, and 94% would support controlled studies using sham surgery.

In conclusion, “Future research needs to determine whether eliciting more considered judgments of laypersons would reveal different levels of support for sham surgery.”

For a complete discussion of this research, see Frank S, Wilson R, Holloway R, Zimmerman C, Peterson A, Kieburtz K, Kim SY. Ethics of sham surgery: Perspective of patients. Movement Disorders 2008;23(1):63-68. The senior author, Scott Y. Kim, MD, PhD, is a faculty member at the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences at the University of Michigan.

Read the article:

Ethics of sham surgery: Perspective of patients.
Frank S, Wilson R, Holloway RG, Zimmerman C, Peterson DR, Kieburtz K, Kim SY. Movement Disorders 2008;23:63-8.

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.


The August 2016 issue of AMA Journal of Ethics features commentaries by Christian Vercler, Lauren Smith, and Andrew Shuman.

"Is Consent to Autopsy Necessary? Cartesian Dualism in Medicine and Its Limitations"
Commentary by Megan Lane and Christian J. Vercler

"I Might Have Some Bad News: Disclosing Preliminary Pathology Results"
Commentary by Michael H. Roh and Andrew G. Shuman

"Requests for VIP Treatment in Pathology: Implications for Social Justice and Systems-Based Practice"
Commentary by Virginia Sheffield and Lauren B. Smith

Research Topics: 

Get it out of me! (Dec-05)

A 5% chance of death or a 10% chance of death:  which would you choose?

Imagine that you have been diagnosed with a slow growing cancer. Right now, the cancer is not causing you to feel sick. For most people, the cancer will grow so slowly it will never cause them any trouble. For others, the cancer will grow to the point that it makes them sick. Untreated, five percent (5 out of 100) will die of the cancer. Your doctor tells you that you have two treatment options: watchful waiting or surgery. Watchful waiting means you will not do any treatment right away, but your doctor will follow your cancer closely and treat any symptoms that you have if it begins to spread. Although it would be too late to be cured, you would be comfortable and free of pain. There are no side effects to watchful waiting, but five percent (5 out of 100) of the people who choose this treatment will develop symptoms and die from their cancer within five years. On the other hand, the surgery would cure your cancer permanently. Following surgery you will feel more tired than usual and will experience stomach upset occasionally for the three months following your surgery. However, surgery has a ten percent (10 out of 100) risk of death during the surgery.

Imagine that both of these treatments are completely covered by your health insurance. Which would you choose?

  •  I would not take the surgery and accept the 5% chance of dying from this cancer.
  •  I would take the surgery and accept the 10% chance of dying from the surgery.

How do your answers compare?

In the real world, cancer patients sometimes choose treatments that may have devastating side effects over less invasive, yet equally or more effective, approaches. One explanation for this is that people may feel a strong need to "get the cancer out" of their bodies. Surgical removal of all potentially cancerous tissues may satisfy this desire so thoroughly that people end up ignoring important statistical information about adverse outcomes.

Making a choice not in their best interest

CBDSM investigators Angela Fagerlin, Brian Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter Ubel hypothesized that people perceive cancer diagnoses as a call to action, and more specifically, a call to get rid of the cancer through surgery, regardless of what statistical information might say to the contrary. Consequently, they predicted that when presented with hypothetical cancer diagnoses, many people would say they would pursue surgery even if such an action would decrease their chance of survival.

To explore the relative frequency of people's willingness to choose surgery when it wasn't in their best interest, the investigators designed a cancer scenario similar to the one you read on the previous page. Participants were presented either a surgery or a medication treatment that would either increase or decrease their chance of survival.

The investigators found that participants who were presented with the opportunity to rid themselves of their cancer through surgery were significantly more inclined to take action than those who were presented with the medication treatment. For example, when the treatment reduced their overall chance of survival, 65% chose the surgery, whereas only 38% chose the medication treatment. This suggests that people's treatment decisions may be based not on the effectiveness of the treatments, but rather on their beliefs about how cancer should be treated. Specifically, cancer diagnoses seem to conjure up a strong desire for active treatment. And people seem to have an intuitive belief that action should not just involve treatment, but surgical removal of the cancer.

Why these findings are important

The results of this study may resonate with many clinicians who have encountered cancer patients who seem to desire treatment for treatment's sake, or who have a preference for surgical intervention even before they learn about the pros and cons of their treatment alternatives. This study should serve to remind clinicians that patients' preference for action can be strong enough, at times, to be a bias. At a minimum, it is important for health care professionals to be aware of the potential for such biases, so they can decide whether to accept patients' preferences at face value, or try to convince patients that aggressively treating a tumor may not be in their best interests.

Read the article:

Cure me even if it kills me: Preferences for invasive cancer treatment.
Fagerlin A, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. Medical Decision Making 2005;25(6):614-619.

The Importance of First Impressions (Jun-05)

How do your risk estimate and your actual level of risk impact your anxiety? Please answer the following question to the best of your ability:

What is the chance that the average woman will develop breast cancer in her lifetime?

The average lifetime chance of developing breast cancer is actually 13%.

How does this risk of breast cancer (13% or 13 out of 100 women) strike you?
As an extremely low risk 1       2       3       4       5        6        7        8       9       10 As an extremely high risk

How do your answers compare?

Making a risk estimate can change the feel of the actual risk

CBDSM investigators Angela Fagerlin, Brian Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter Ubel designed a study to test whether people react differently to risk information after they have been asked to estimate the risks. In this study, half the sample first estimated the average woman's risk of breast cancer (just as you did previously), while the other half made no such estimate. All subjects were then shown the actual risk information and indicated how the risk made them feel and gave their impression of the size of the risk. The graph below shows what they found:


As shown in the graph above, subjects who first made an estimated risk reported significantly more relief than those in the no estimate group. In contrast, subjects in the no estimate group showed significantly greater anxiety. Also, women in the estimate group tended to view the risk as low, whereas those in the no estimate group tended to view the risk as high.

So what's responsible for these findings? On average, those in the estimate group guessed that 46% of women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, which is a fairly large overestimate of the actual risk. It appears, then, that this overestimate makes the 13% figure feel relatively low, leading to a sense of relief when subjects find the risk isn't as bad as they had previously thought.

Why this finding is important

Clinical practice implications - The current research suggests that clinicians need to be very deliberate but very cautious in how they communicate risk information to their patients. These results argue that a physician should consider whether a person is likely to over-estimate their risk and whether they have an unreasonably high fear of cancer before having them make a risk estimation. For the average patient who would overestimate their risk, making a risk estimation may be harmful, leading them to be too relieved by the actual risk figure to take appropriate actions. On the other hand, if a patient has an unreasonably high fear of cancer, having them make such an estimate may actually be instrumental in decreasing their anxiety. Physicians may want to subtly inquire whether their patient is worried about her cancer risk or if she has any family history of cancer to address the latter type of patient.

Research implications - Many studies in cancer risk communication literature have asked participants at baseline about their perceived risk of developing specific cancers. Researchers then implement an intervention to "correct" baseline risk estimates. The current results suggest that measuring risk perceptions pre-intervention will influence people's subsequent reactions, making it difficult to discern whether it was the intervention that changed their attitudes or the pre-intervention risk estimate. Researchers testing out such interventions need to proceed with caution, and may need to add research arms of people who do not receive such pre-tests.

For more details: Fagerlin A, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. How making a risk estimate can change the feel of that risk: shifting attitudes toward breast cancer risk in a general public survey. Patient Educ Couns. 2005 Jun;57(3):294-9.



How bad would it be? (May-05)

For certain diseases, receiving treatment can disrupt daily life considerably. How would this disruption affect your happiness?

Think about your average mood during a typical week. How would you rate your average mood?

  • very pleasant
  • slightly pleasant
  • neutral
  • slightly unpleasant
  • very unpleasant
Now imagine you have end-stage renal disease, a condition in which your kidneys fail to perform their normal function of cleaning and filtering the blood. Treatment consists of a procedure called hemodialysis, in which your blood is filtered through a machine. You require treatment three times per week for about three hours each time. Discomfort is minor, and you can read, write, talk, eat, sleep, or watch TV during the treatment. Your lifestyle includes most normal activities, including work, exercise, and leisure; however, you feel fatigued if you miss treatment for several days. Also, you must follow a strict diet that involves reducing salt intake, consuming relatively little meat, and drinking only small amounts of fluids. Imagine, you have been on hemodialysis for a year.
Now imagine your average mood during a typical week if you had end-stage renal disease as described above. If you had end-stage renal disease, how do you think you would rate your average mood?
  • very pleasant
  • slightly pleasant
  • neutral
  • slightly unpleasant
  • very unpleasant

How do your answers compare?

The discrepancy between Patients and Non-patients

Past research has shown that there are serious health conditions that do not seem to be as badly experienced by the people living with them as healthy people would expect. Although the existence of this discrepancy is well established at this point, its cause is not. One possibility is that patients are exaggerating their well-being. They may be focusing on periods of positive mood even though they actually experience lengthy periods of negative mood. On the other hand, patients might be as happy as they report and healthy people might very much be overestimating the negative impact of the illness. A related explanation comes from evidence that healthy people tend to underestimate their own past moods, recalling negative times more readily than positive times. This would then make them more likely to also understate the well-being of other people as well, and this could contribute to the discrepancy.

Which explanation is correct?

Jason Riis, a researcher at the University of Michigan, teamed up with investigators from CBDSM and the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study with the goal of finding out which of the above explanations is accountable for the discrepancy. To accomplish this, they set out to measure mood in two ways. One way is to ask individuals to estimate their average mood. The other way is to measure mood on a momentary basis, asking individuals at frequent intervals to indicate their mood at the moment, and then taking the average of these responses. This latter way of assessing mood is less influenced by biased recall than just asking subjects to estimate overall mood.

The investigators recruited 49 end-stage renal patients receiving hemodialysis treatment three times per week and 49 healthy controls who were matched to the patients on age, race, sex, and education. Subjects were first given an entry interview during which they estimated their average mood. They were then asked to carry around Palm Pilots for a week that beeped at random intervals, prompting them to indicate their mood at the moment. After carrying the Palm Pilots around for a week, subjects completed an exit interview that asked them to recall their average mood in the last week and to again estimate their average mood in general. Healthy subjects also estimated what they thought their average mood would be if they were a hemodialysis patient.

The investigators found that patients' average momentary moods were no lower than their estimated average mood, thus finding no evidence that patients exaggerate their mood. In fact, they failed to find any evidence that patients experience lower moods than healthy controls. In appears, then, that hemodialysis patients do largely adapt to their condition. On the other hand, healthy controls did rate that their average mood would be lower if they were homodialysis patients. Thus, the previously observed tendency of healthy people to underestimate the reported quality of life of people with various health conditions does seem to be due, in large part, to their misperception of the extent to which people can adapt to such conditions. In this study, healthy people also underestimated their own average mood. This could also account for some of the discrepancy, but the effect was not very large.

Why this is important

Ignorance of adaptation can have negative consequences for decision making. It can cause individuals to opt for unnecessarily risky surgeries and policymakers to invest in programs that have a minimal impact on people's well-being. This is not to say that research and treatment of kidney disease should not continue to be priorities, but in making difficult policy decisions, consideration of the moods experienced by patients may influence priorities between serious conditions such as, for example, paraplegia and depression. The results of this study suggest that policy makers should proceed with caition because healthy people's apparent exaggeration of the influence of illness on mood can lead to incorrect perceptions of how illness will influence quality of life.

Read the article:

Ignorance of hedonic adaptation to hemo-dialysis: a study using ecological momentary assessment.
Riis J, Loewenstein G, Baron J, Jepson C, Fagerlin A, Ubel PA. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2005;134:3-9.

Give or take a few years (Feb-05)

A longer life may result from the amount of social support present in your life, but is the longevity due to giving or receiving that support?

Imagine that in your busy schedule each week, you typically at least have Wednesday and Saturday nights free as time to spend however you want. Recently, however, one of your close friends had her car break down and now she is wondering whether you would be willing to drive her to and from a yoga class on Wednesday nights for the next three weeks while the car is in the shop. She told you that the class is only about a 15 minute drive each way. She said that you shouldn't feel pressured, and she just thought she'd ask if you had the time to help her out.

Would you be willing to drive your friend to and from her yoga class for the next three weeks?
  • Yes, I'd take the time to help her out.
  • No, I'd keep my Wednesday nights free.
Do you think that helping out others could at all affect your health?
  • Yes
  • No

Giving vs. receiving: effects on mortality

A research team of investigators at the U of M Institute for Social Research teamed up with CBDSM investigator, Dylan Smith, to conduct a study investigating whether giving or receiving help affects longevity. The researchers noted that receiving social support is likely to be correlated with other aspects of close relationships, including the extent to which individuals give to one another. Based on this, they hypothesized that some of the benefits of social contact, sometimes attributed to receiving support from others, may instead be due to the act of giving support to others.

Using a sample of 423 married couples from the Detroit area, the investigators conducted face-to-face interviews over an 11-month period. The interviews assessed the amount of instrumental support respondents had given to and received from neighbors, friends, and relatives, as well as the amount of emotional support they had given to and received from their spouse. Instrumental support included things like helping with transportation, errands, and child care, whereas emotional support involved having open discussions with a spouse and feeling emotionally supported. Mortality was monitored over a 5-year period by checking daily obituaries and monthly death record tapes provided by the State of Michigan. To control for the possibility that any beneficial effects of giving support are due to a type of mental or physical robustness that underlies both giving and mortality risk, the investigators also measured a variety of demographic, health, and individual difference variables, including social contact and dependence on the spouse.

The investigators found that those who reported giving support to others had a reduced risk of mortality. This was true for both instrumental supoprt given to neighbors, friends, and relatives, and for emotional support given to a spouse. They also found that the relationship between receiving social support and mortality depended on other factors. Specifically, receiving emotional support appeared to reduce the risk of mortality when dependence on spouse, but not giving emotional support, was controlled. Receiving instrumental support from others actually increased the risk of mortality when giving support, but not dependence on spouse, was controlled.

What can we make of these findings?

It appears from these results that the benefits of social contact are mostly associated with giving rather than receiving. Measures that assess receiving alone may be imprecise, producing different results as a function of dependence and giving support.

Given the correlational nature of this study, it is not possible to determine conclusively that giving support accounts for the social benefit traditionally associated with receiving support. Nevertheless, the results of the present study should be considered a strong argument for the inclusion of measures of giving support in future studies of social support, and perhaps more importantly, researchers should be cautious of assuming that the benefits of social contact reside in receiving support.

It's true that when helping others out, you might have to give up some of your own time, but based on the above findings, it looks like in the long run you may end up ultimately gaining more time.

Read the article:

Providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it: results from a prospective study of mortality.
Brown S, Nesse RM, Vinokur AD, Smith DM. Psychological Science 2003;14:320-327.

It's your call: your intuition against the experts' advice (Jan-05)

A respected national organization has released new guidelines. As a physician, would you change your patient's treatment based on these recommendations? Imagine you are a primary care physician taking care of a male patient, Sam, with mildly elevated cholesterol. He doesn't like taking pills and, fortunately, his cholesterol has been good enough that he doesn't need any pills. But now, a respected National Organization has just revised its recommendations, and are urging doctors to treat cholesterol more aggressively, even in people like this patient, who has no history of heart disease or diabetes.

What role should these new guidelines play in your decision?

The guidelines should not be a strong consideration 1       2       3       4        5  The guidelines should be a strong consideration
What would you recommend to your patient, Sam?
I would... 
  • ask him to take a pill.
  • urge him to take a pill.
  • give him information about cholesterol and let him decide.
  • urge him not to take a pill.
  • ask him not to take a pill.

How do your answers compare?

What were some of the things you were weighing when you made your decision? Perhaps you were wondering why the National Organization would recommend taking a pill even when a patient's cholesterol is good enough that they wouldn't necessarily need the more aggressive treatment. You might have found yourself wondering whose interests were reflected in these guidelines. Did the National Organization have some kind of investment in the pill or the pharmaceutical company that produces it? You might have had some doubts about just how much you could trust the guidelines.

Resistance to practicing "cost-effective" medicine

In the past, physicians did what was best for each individual patient in their care, without having to consider cost or having to figure out whether an HMO or accreditation board was looking over their shoulders. But now physicians are put in the awkward position of having to judge whether a particular patient will benefit enough from a specific therapy for that therapy to be cost-effective. It is not surprising that physicians disparage cost-effectiveness in health care, given that traditional medical education teaches that they should not consider the cost of medical interventions when treating individual patients.

Resistance to practicing according to Clinical Practice Guidelines

Clinical practice guidelines, like the one you read about on the previous page, offer a potentially palatable way for physicians to consider the cost-effectiveness of medical interventions. High quality guidelines are based on thorough and systematic reviews of clinical and cost-effectiveness evidence. Still, physicians are often concerned that guidelines are tainted by financial conflicts of interest. The experts who are involved in writing the guidelines are often the same individuals who interact with the pharmaceutical industry.

Why cost-effectiveness and Clinical Practice Guidelines belong together

Investigator Ellen Hummel and CBDSM investigator Peter Ubel were asked by the editors of Virtual Mentor, the online ethics forum of the American Medical Association, to comment on whether clinical practice guidelines ought to incorporate cost-effectiveness information. These investigators begin by acknowledging the resistance to practicing cost-effective medicine. At the same time, however, they argue that including cost-effectiveness information in clinical practice guidelines is an essential way to address physicians' concerns about the kinds of conflicts of interest mentioned above. If cost-effectiveness evidence is presented up-front, physicians wouldn't have as many concerns that the guielines were intended to benefit the industry while sticking the patient with a higher cost. Imagine if on the previous page the guideline had presented evidence that the new, more aggressive cholesterol treatment was still well within accepted cost-effectiveness ratios despite potential conflicts of interest. You might have then better trusted the guideline's recommendation when assessing what to tell Sam.

Including cost-effectiveness information in clinical practice guidelines will enhance the credibility of their recommendations. At the same time, evidence-based guidelines help clinicians recognize the importance of practicing cost-effective medicine with their individual patients. With the help of high quality guidelines, physicians may be encouraged by groups of peers and respected authorities to restrain themselves from pursuing rare benefits for their patients, which is especially important in a time when our current health care system increasingly demands that we become involved with the costs of medical care.

Read the article:

Cost and clinical practice guidelines: Can two wrongs make it right?
Ubel PA, Hummel EK. Virtual Mentor 2004;6:np.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics in Public Life and the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, the 2nd annual Bioethics Colloquium took place on Friday, May 20, 8:30-3:30 pm, in the Alumni Center.  The colloquium featured presentations of research in or about bioethics conducted by U-M faculty, fellows, and students.

The keynote speaker was Susan Dorr Goold, MD, MHSA, MA, who gave a talk entitled, "Market failures, moral failures, and health reform."

Nearly 70 people attended the event, which featured 10 presentations by faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students drawn from a variety of disciplines.