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Structural Competency 13(2)

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Volume 13, Issue 2 (June 2016)
Symposium: Structural Competency in the U.S. Healthcare Crisis: Putting Social and Policy Interventions into Clinical Practice
Guest Editors: Helena Hansen and Jonathan Metzl

Image: FreeImages.com/GoFish


Afterthoughts and Foresight: Digging Through Boxes of Bygone Beliefs and Brooding About the Burgeoning of Bioethics

Leigh E. Rich

Recent Developments

Legal Standards for Brain Death and Undue Influence in Euthanasia Laws

Thaddeus Mason Pope and Michaela E. Okninski


Structural Competency in the U.S. Healthcare Crisis: Putting Social and Policy Interventions Into Clinical Practice

Helena Hansen and Jonathan Metzl
This symposium of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry illustrates structural competency: how clinical practitioners can intervene on social and institutional determinants of health. It will require training clinicians to see and act on structural barriers to health, to adapt imaginative structural approaches from fields outside of medicine, and to collaborate with disciplines and institutions outside of medicine. Case studies of effective work on all of these levels are presented in this volume. The contributors exemplify structural competency from many angles, from the implications of epigenetics for environmental intervention in personalized medicine to the ways clinicians can act on fundamental causes of disease, address abuses of power in clinical training, racially desegregate cities to reduce health disparities, address the systemic causes of torture by police, and implement harm-reduction programs for addiction in the face of punitive drug laws. Together, these contributors demonstrate the unique roles that clinicians can play in breaking systemic barriers to health and the benefit to the U.S. healthcare system of adopting innovations from outside of the United States and outside of clinical medicine.

Fundamental Interventions: How Clinicians Can Address the Fundamental Causes of Disease

Adam D. Reich, Helena B. Hansen, and Bruce G. Link
In order to enhance the “structural competency” of medicine—the capability of clinicians to address social and institutional determinants of their patients’ health—physicians need a theoretical lens to see how social conditions influence health and how they might address them. We consider one such theoretical lens, fundamental cause theory, and propose how it might contribute to a more structurally competent medical profession. We first describe fundamental cause theory and how it makes the social causes of disease and health visible. We then outline the sorts of “fundamental interventions” that physicians might make in order to address the fundamental causes.

Socio-Genomics and Structural Competency

Dalton Conley and Dolores Malaspina
Adverse developmental exposures and pathologies of the social environment make vastly greater contributions to the leading health burdens in society than currently known genotypic information. Yet, while patients now commonly bring information on single alleles to the attention of their healthcare team, the former conditions are only rarely considered with respect to future health outcomes. This manuscript aims to integrate social environmental influences in genetic predictive models of disease risk. Healthcare providers must be educated to better understand genetic risks for complex diseases and the specific health consequences of societal adversities, to facilitate patient education, disease prevention, and the optimal care in order to achieve positive health outcomes for those with early trauma or other social disadvantage.

Power Day: Addressing the Use and Abuse of Power in Medical Training

Nancy R. Angoff, Laura Duncan, Nichole Roxas, and Helena Hansen
Problem: Medical student mistreatment, as well as patient and staff mistreatment by all levels of medical trainees and faculty, is still prevalent in U.S. clinical training. Largely missing in interventions to reduce mistreatment is acknowledgement of the abuse of power produced by the hierarchical structure in which medicine is practiced. Approach: Beginning in 2001, Yale School of Medicine has held annual “Power Day” workshops for third year medical students and advanced practice nursing students, to define and analyse power dynamics within the medical hierarchy and hidden curriculum using literature, guest speakers, and small groups. During rotations, medical students write narratives about the use of power witnessed in the wards. In response to student and small group leader feedback, workshop organizers have developed additional activities related to examining and changing the use of power in clinical teams. Outcome: Emerging narrative themes included the potential impact of small acts and students feeling “mute” and “complicit” in morally distressing situations. Small groups provided safe spaces for advice, support, and professional identity formation. By 2005, students recognized residents that used power positively with Power Day awards and alumni served as keynote speakers on the use of power in medicine. By 2010, departments including OB/GYN, surgery, psychiatry, and paediatrics, had added weekly team Power Hour discussions. Next Steps: The authors highlight barriers, benefits, and lessons learned. Barriers include the notion of clinical irrelevance and resistance to the word “power” due to perceived accusation of abuse. Benefits include promoting open dialogue about power, fostering inter-professional collaboration, rewarding positive role modelling by residents and faculty, and creating a network of trainee empowerment and leadership. Furthermore, faculty have started to ask that issues of power be addressed in a more transparent way at their level of the hierarchy as well.

Medicine for the City: Perspective and Solidarity as Tools for Making Urban Health

Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Michel Cantal-Dupart
The United States has pursued policies of urban upheaval that have undermined social organization, dispersed people, particularly African Americans, and increased rates of disease and disorder. Healthcare institutions have been, and can be, a part of this problem or a part of the solution. This essay addresses two tools that healthcare providers can use to repair the urban ecosystem—perspective and solidarity. Perspective addresses both our ability to envision solutions and our ability to see in the space in which we move. Solidarity is our ability to appreciate our fellowship with other people, a mindset that is at the heart of medical practice. These two tools lay the foundation for structurally competent healthcare providers to act in a restorative manner to create a health-giving built environment.

Preventing Torture in Nepal: A Public Health and Human Rights Intervention

Danielle D. Celermajer and Jack Saul
In this article we address torture in military and police organizations as a public health and human rights challenge that needs to be addressed through multiple levels of intervention. While most mental health approaches focus on treating the harmful effects of such violence on individuals and communities, the goal of the project described here was to develop a primary prevention strategy at the institutional level to prevent torture from occurring in the first place. Such an approach requires understanding and altering the conditions that cause and sustain “atrocity producing situations” (Lifton 2000, 2004). Given the persistence of torture across the world and its profound health consequences, this is an increasingly important issue in global health and human rights.

Treating Addictions: Harm Reduction in Clinical Care and Prevention

Ernest Drucker, Kenneth Anderson, Robert Haemmig, Robert Heimer, Dan Small, Alex Walley, Evan Wood, and Ingrid van Beek
This paper examines the role of clinical practitioners and clinical researchers internationally in establishing the utility of harm-reduction approaches to substance use. It thus illustrates the potential for clinicians to play a pivotal role in health promoting structural interventions based on harm-reduction goals and public health models. Popular media images of drug use as uniformly damaging, and abstinence as the only acceptable goal of treatment, threaten to distort clinical care away from a basis in evidence, which shows that some ways of using drugs are far more harmful than others and that punitive approaches and insistence on total abstinence as the only goal of treatment often increases the harms of drug use rather than reducing drug use. Therefore the leadership and scientific authority of clinicians who understand the health impact of harm-reduction strategies is needed. Through a review of harm-reduction interventions in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, we identify three ways that clinicians have helped to achieve a paradigm shift from punitive approaches to harm-reduction principles in clinical care and in drug policy: (1) through clinical research to provide data establishing the effectiveness and feasibility of harm-reduction approaches, (2) by developing innovative clinical programmes that employ harm reduction, and thereby (3) changing the standard of care to include routine use of these evidence-based (but often misunderstood) approaches in their practices. We argue that through promotion of harm-reduction goals and methods, clinicians have unique opportunities to improve the health outcomes of vulnerable populations.

Original Research

The Ethical Imperative to Move to a Seven-Day Care Model

Anthony Bell, Fiona McDonald, and Tania Hobson
Whilst the nature of human illness is not determined by time of day or day of week, we currently structure health service delivery around a five-day delivery model. At least one country is endeavouring to develop a systems-based approach to planning a transition from five- to seven-day healthcare delivery models, and some services are independently instituting program reorganization to achieve these ends as research, amongst other things, highlights increased mortality and morbidity for weekend and after-hours admissions to hospitals. In this article, we argue that this issue does not merely raise instrumental concerns but also opens up a normative ethical dimension, recognizing that clinical ethical dilemmas are impacted on and created by systems of care. Using health policy ethics, we critically examine whether our health services, as currently structured, are at odds with ethical obligations for patient care and broader collective goals associated with the provision of publicly funded health services. We conclude by arguing that a critical health policy ethics perspective applying relevant ethical values and principles needs to be included when considering whether and how to transition from five-day to seven-day models for health delivery.

Medical Students’ Opinions About the Commercialization of Healthcare: A Cross-Sectional Survey

M. Murat Civaner, Harun Balcioglu, and Kevser Vatansever
There are serious concerns about the commercialization of healthcare and adoption of the business approach in medicine. As market dynamics endanger established professional values, healthcare workers face more complicated ethical dilemmas in their daily practice. The aim of this study was to investigate the willingness of medical students to accept the assertions of commercialized healthcare and the factors affecting their level of agreement, factors which could influence their moral stance when market demands conflict with professional values. A cross-sectional study was conducted in three medical schools in Turkey. The study population consisted of first-, third-, and sixth-year students, and 1,781 students participated in total. Students were asked to state if they agreed with the assertions of commercialized healthcare. Of all students, 87.2 per cent agreed with at least one of the assertions, and one-fifth (20.8 per cent) of them agreed with more than half of the assertions. First-year students significantly agreed more with some assertions than third- and sixth-year students. Being female, having mid-level family income, choosing medicine due to idealistic reasons, and being in the third or sixth years of medical study increased the probability of disagreement. Also, studying in a medical school that included integrated lectures on health policies, rights related to health, and health inequities, along with early field visits, increased the probability of disagreement. This study suggests that agreement with the assertions of commercialized healthcare might be prevalent among students at a considerable level. We argue that this level of agreement is not compatible with best practice in professional ethics and indicates the need for an educational intervention in order to have physicians who give priority to patients’ best interests in the face of market demands.

Feeling Is Believing: Evaluative Conditioning and the Ethics of Pharmaceutical Advertising

Paul Biegler and Patrick Vargas
A central goal in regulating direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription pharmaceuticals (DTCA) is to ensure that explicit drug claims are truthful. Yet imagery can also alter viewer attitudes, and the degree to which this occurs in DTCA is uncertain. Addressing this data gap, we provide evidence that positive feelings produced by images can promote favourable beliefs about pharmaceuticals. We had participants view a fictitious anti-influenza drug paired with unrelated images that elicited either positive, neutral or negative feelings. Participants who viewed positive images rated the influenza drug as significantly more effective, safe, and beneficial than did participants who viewed negative images. This effect, known as evaluative conditioning, is well described in experimental social psychology but has not previously been shown with pharmaceuticals. We discuss how evaluative conditioning in DTCA may compromise viewer autonomy, and canvass possible regulatory responses.

What Do the Various Principles of Justice Mean Within the Concept of Benefit Sharing?

Bege Dauda, Yvonne Denier, and Kris Dierickx
The concept of benefit sharing pertains to the act of giving something in return to the participants, communities, and the country that have participated in global health research or bioprospecting activities. One of the key concerns of benefit sharing is the ethical justifications or reasons to support the practice of the concept in global health research and bioprospecting. This article evaluates one of such ethical justifications and its meaning to benefit sharing, namely justice. We conducted a systematic review to map the various principles of justice that are linked to benefit sharing and analysed their meaning to the concept of benefit sharing. Five principles of justice (commutative, distributive, global, procedural, and compensatory) have been shown to be relevant in the nuances of benefit sharing in both global health research and bioprospecting. The review findings indicate that each of these principles of justice provides a different perspective for a different benefit sharing rationale. For example, commutative justice provides a benefit sharing rationale that is focused on fair exchange of benefits between research sponsors and communities. Distributive justice produces a benefit sharing rationale that is focused on improving the health needs of the vulnerable research communities. We have suggested that a good benefit sharing framework particularly in global health research would be more beneficial if it combines all the principles of justice in its formulation. Nonetheless, there is a need for empirical studies to examine the various principles of justice and their nuances in benefit sharing among stakeholders in global health research.

Do Spanish Hospital Professionals Educate Their Patients About Advance Directives?

María Pérez, Benjamín Herreros, Mª Dolores Martín, Julia Molina, Jack Kanouzi, and María Velasco
It is unknown whether hospital-based medical professionals in Spain educate patients about advance directives (ADs). The objective of this research was to determine the frequency of hospital-based physicians’ and nurses’ engagement in AD discussions in the hospital and which patient populations merit such efforts. A short question-and-answer-based survey of physicians and nurses taking care of inpatients was conducted at a university hospital in Madrid, Spain. In total, 283 surveys were collected from medical professionals, of whom 71 per cent were female, with an average age of thirty-four years. Eighty-four per cent had never educated patients about ADs because of lack of perceived responsibility, time, or general knowledge of ADs. Patient populations that warranted AD discussions included those with terminal illnesses (77 per cent), chronic diseases (61 per cent), and elderly patients (43 per cent). Regarding degree of AD understanding in medical professionals: 57 per cent of medical professionals claimed sufficient general knowledge of ADs, 19 per cent understood particulars regarding AD document creation, and 16 per cent were aware of AD regulatory policies. Engagement in AD discussions was considered important by 83 per cent of medical professionals, with 79 per cent interested in participating in such discussions themselves. The majority of hospital physicians and nurses do not educate their patients about ADs, despite acknowledging their importance. Patient populations of highest priority included those with terminal diseases or chronic illness or who are of advanced age.

The Extension of Belgium’s Euthanasia Law to Include Competent Minors

Kasper Raus
Following considerable debate, the practice of euthanasia was legalized in Belgium in 2002, thereby making Belgium one of the few places in the world where this practice is legal. In 2014 the law was amended for the first time. The 2014 amendment makes euthanasia legally possible for all minors who repeatedly and voluntarily request euthanasia and who are judged to possess “capacity of discernment” (regardless of their biological age), as well as fulfil a number of other criteria of due care. This extension of the 2002 euthanasia law generated a lot of national and international debate and has been applauded by many and heavily criticized by others. This evolution is clearly of interest to end-of-life debates in the entire world. This paper will therefore describe how this amendment came to get passed using official documents from Belgium’s Senate and Chamber of Representatives where this amendment was discussed and subsequently passed. Next, some of the most commonly given arguments in favour of the law are identified, as well as the arguments most often voiced against the amendment. All these arguments will be expanded upon and it will be examined whether they hold up to ethical scrutiny. Analysing the official documents and identifying the most commonly voiced arguments gives valuable insight into how Belgium came to amend its euthanasia law and why it did so in 2014. It also becomes clear that although the current amendment is often seen as far-reaching, more radical ideas were proposed during the drafting of the law. Also, in analysing those arguments in favour of the amendment and those against, it is clear that the validity of some of these is questionable.

Assaults by Mentally Disordered Offenders in Prison: Equity and Equivalence

Heidi Hales, Amy Dixon, Zoe Newton, and Annie Bartlett
Managing the violent behaviour of mentally disordered offenders (MDO) is challenging in all jurisdictions. We describe the ethical framework and practical management of MDOs in England and Wales in the context of the move to equivalence of healthcare between hospital and prison. We consider the similarities and differences between prison and hospital management of the violent and challenging behaviours of MDOs. We argue that both types of institution can learn from each other and that equivalence of care should extend to equivalence of criminal proceedings in court and prisons for MDOs. We argue that any adjudication process in prison for MDOs is enhanced by the relevant involvement of mental health professionals and the articulation of the ethical principles underpinning health and criminal justice practices.

“But You Would Be the Best Mother”: Unwomen, Counterstories, and the Motherhood Mandate

Anna Gotlib
This paper addresses and challenges the pronatalist marginalization and oppression of voluntarily childless women in the Global North. These conditions call for philosophical analyses and for sociopolitical responses that would make possible the necessary moral spaces for resistance. Focusing on the relatively privileged subgroups of women who are the targets of pronatalist campaigns, the paper explores the reasons behind their choices, the nature and methods of Western pronatalism, and distinguishes three specific sources of some of the more lasting, and stigmatizing attacks: popular culture, law and policy, and medicine itself. I then argue that because they are construed by motherhood-essentializing, and increasingly popular, pronatalist narratives as, among other things, “failed” or “selfish,” voluntarily childless women are subsequently burdened with damaged identities that can leave them personally othered and uniquely liminal in ways that are destructive to moral agency. Finally, I conclude with a challenge to the pronatalist master narratives by suggesting the possibility of counter narratives to the voluntarily childless woman’s liminality that might serve as the ground of moral and political solidarity among differently situated women, regardless of their motherhood status.


On Immunity: An Inoculation

Jane Smith
[No abstract available]

Hard to Believe

Holly Louise Northam
This article presents a review of Hard to Believe, a compelling documentary reporting the forced organ procurement and death of Chinese prisoners of conscience. The documentary is targeted to ignite political and public pressure to stop these practices that are thought to be motivated by financial and political gain. Narrated by journalist and author Ethan Gutmann, the documentary pricks at the collective conscience, as credible witnesses provide evidence that point to an abrogation of every ethical principle ascribed to legitimate organ procurement.