Dominic Wilkinson

Our special treatment of patients in a vegetative state is a form of cruel and unusual punishment

by Professor Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics

Professor of Medical Ethics, Consultant Neonatologist

 

Our society has good reason to provide special treatment to people with severe brain injuries and their families.

But our current “special treatment” for a group of the most severely affected people with brain injuries leads to devastating, agonising, protracted and totally preventable suffering.

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Is the Zika panic over? Ethics of diagnosis and misdiagnosis

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics 

and Keyur Doolabh, Medical Student, Monash University

Towards the end of last year, and over the first months of 2016, there were alarming reports of the explosive spread of Zika virus infection in South America. As many as 1.5m Brazilians were thought to have contracted the virus. More, worrying still, there were reports of thousands of cases of congenital microcephaly – infants born with abnormally small heads because of brain damage in the womb. Each week there appeared to be more reports and larger numbers of infants affected.

But the latest estimates from Brazil have reversed this trend. Last week, the total number of confirmed and suspected cases of Zika microcephaly is reported to be 4,759, 500 less than two months ago.

Why are the numbers of cases falling? Does this mean that earlier reports about Zika were wrong? Is the Zika panic over? Continue reading

Striking out? Should we ban doctors strikes?

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

Consultant neonatologist, Director of Medical Ethics

 

Next week, junior doctors in England and Wales will be taking part in industrial action for 15 hours over two successive days. This is the latest in a series of stoppages since late last year, and relates to a dispute over proposed changes to junior doctors’ contracts and pay. It is the first strike, (and the first in the UK since the establishment of the NHS), to include all medical care, including emergency treatment. Junior doctors will not be at work in accident and emergency departments, intensive care units, operating theatres and hospital wards between 8 and 5 on both of those days.

There are a series of questions raised by these strikes. There are disputed claims about the impact of contract changes on take home pay, on working conditions for doctors and on patient care. There are different views about the actual impact of next week’s strike on patients, on public opinion, or on negotiations about the new contract. But for the purposes of this article, I am going set those specific questions aside, and focus on a more general question. Should doctor strikes (particularly emergency care strikes) be legal, should they be allowed? Continue reading

Should we prevent Zika microcephaly using birth control?

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford, @Neonatalethics

The World Health Organisation is to hold an emergency meeting after considerable concern about the zika virus in South America. The epidemic has been of considerable concern particularly because it has been linked to microcephaly (unusually small heads) in newborn babies that can lead to potentially devastating brain problems.

There is fear that this virus (if it is the cause) could spread throughout the Americas, including North America. There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, and no known treatment for children who suffer brain damage in the womb. Officials in Columbia, Ecuador, El Salavador and Jamaica have recommended that women avoid or defer becoming pregnant to prevent their babies being affected. But is it ethical to use birth control to control Zika microcephaly? Continue reading

How much would you pay to live an extra year?

Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

@Neonatalethics

Medical science continues to push at the boundaries of life and death with new drugs and technologies that can extend life or improve health. But these advances come at a cost. And that inevitably raises difficult questions about whether public health systems should pay for such treatments – and, if so, how much. For example, should the NHS fund the new breast cancer drug Kadycla which comes with a £90,000 price tag per patient?

Some countries make these difficult decisions by looking at the cost-effectiveness of new treatments. How much does the new treatment cost and how effective is it compared with existing treatments? Treatments may help patients live longer, or they may improve a patient’s quality of life (or both). Kadycla appears to extend life by about six months.

One mathematical way of combining these elements uses the concept of a Quality-Adjusted Life Year saved, or QALY. As an example, a treatment that extends life for one year but at a “quality” level of half normal it said to save 0.5 QALY. When treatments are assessed this way, health systems can then use a threshold to work out a maximum cost that is affordable. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) uses a threshold of £20,000-£30,000 for each Quality-Adjusted Life Year saved (QALY). This would mean (assuming full quality of life), that the NHS would be prepared to pay £10,000-15,000 for a course of Kadycla.

Saving time.
Bank by Shutterstock

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Gene-free: Can parents refuse genetic testing for their child?

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

A critically ill infant in intensive care (let us call him Jonas) has serious congenital abnormalities affecting his liver and brain.1 Doctors looking after Jonas suspect that he may have a major genetic problem. They have recommended testing for Jonas, to help determine whether he does have this problem.

However, Jonas’ parents have refused consent for the genetic test. They are concerned that the test could be used to discriminate against Jonas and against them; they have repeatedly indicated that they will not agree to it being performed.

Could it ever be ethical to perform genetic testing on a child against parental wishes?

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Event announcement: European Neonatal Ethics Conference

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

 

The second European Neonatal Ethics Conference is taking place next June (1-2nd) here in Oxford.

I’m very pleased to have been asked to chair the conference, and there is a great line-up of speakers including Margot Brazier, Sofia Moratti, Ingrid Miljeteig, Mirjam de Vos, John Wyatt, Neil Marlowe.

Those with an interest in ethical issues at the start of life, especially clinicians working in neonatal and perinatal care are encouraged to register early to secure a place. There is also a one-day workshop for clinicians interested in developing skills for dealing with difficult ethical dilemmas in neonatal intensive care.

 

Why are unethical neonatal trials still taking place in developing countries?

By Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics

Earlier this year, the Lancet published a trial (the ‘ACT’ trial) involving 100,000 babies at risk of being born prematurely in developing countries. Half of the mothers in the ACT trial did not receive a simple cheap medicine that has been previously shown in multiple trials and meta-analysis to reduce the risk of death for premature babies. From the ACT trial results, it appears that 89 additional babies died as a result of their mothers taking part in the trial.

Surely this is an egregious example of unethical research? It appears to be in breach of the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki standards. Why did ethics committees allow the research? Why did a major journal like the Lancet publish it? Why aren’t bioethicists and activist and advocacy groups like Public Citizen jumping up and down in outrage?

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#IminworkJeremy – the ethics of 24/7 consultant cover

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

 

At the bedside of a critically ill infant at 5am this morning I was tempted to tweet the latest meme, adding my voice to a chorus of NHS clinicians over the weekend. Last week, in a speech to the King’s fund, Health Minister Jeremy Hunt launched a drive towards 7 day NHS. In particular, he focused on consultant contracts, proposing that newly qualified hospital doctors will be required to work weekends as a condition of employment.

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Reincarnation and discrimination

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

In California, in the last week, there have been further motions in a long running lawsuit relating to a brain-dead child. Oakland teenager Jahi McMath died after a tonsillectomy in December 2013. However, her parents rejected the medical diagnosis of brain death, and despite a Californian court providing judicial backing for doctors’ determination, organized for her to have a tracheostomy and be transferred to another medical facility. More than 18 months later it appears that Jahi’s heart is still beating and she is still connected to a breathing machine somewhere in New Jersey. Continue reading

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