Mark Sheehan

Why GPs should not be commissioners


A version of this blog post has been published in the British Medical Journal and can be accessed at:

Why pander to the pandas?

Chris Packham has recently (and not for the first time) suggested that we should stop trying to save the panda — an expensive exercise — and instead put our efforts and resources to ‘better use.’ This suggestion is worth some unpacking.

His argument is a familiar one about cost-effectiveness and resource allocation: we should use our resources so as to maximise their beneficial effects. This kind of argument relies, of course, on an estimation of the value of pandas (and so the disvalue of their extinction) with the cost-effectiveness of saving them being this value divided by the cost of doing so. This is then compared to the value and cost-effectiveness of other environmental concerns like protecting “biodiversity hotspots”.

Importantly there is a range of ways of valuing pandas and biodiversity that each may give different answers to the question of what we should do. It is instructive to consider a number of combinations of these to see how they might pan out and affect Packham’s claims.

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The Abuse of ‘Ethical’

Andy Miah calls the “surge in popular activism, broad democratic demands and institutional reforms” an “ethical turn”. I’m not at all convinced, particularly about the activism. Rather, and feeling most cynical, it seems that a particular middle-class liberal conception of what is valuable and good has had a marketing success by managing to monopolise the term ‘ethical’.

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EightFourteen is enough

As the Guardian reports, what started out as the more usual happy, wonder-of-modern medicine story of octuplets born in California has turned a little bit sour. It turns out that the 33 year old single mother of the eight newborns who lives with her parents, has six children already, the eldest of whom is seven. That’s 14 children below the age of eight. The story gets more difficult. Apparently, the mother is a self described ‘professional student’ who lives on “education grants and her parents’ money” and plans on becoming a “television childcare expert.” Further, the woman’s parents have recently filed for bankruptcy and her mother has previously consulted a psychologist about her daughter’s obsession with children.

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I just don’t care about animals that much!

Despite the protestations of those opposed to the use of animals in research, the fundamental differences between people over the treatment of animals seems to lie with the weight that we are prepared to give to animal suffering and death in the pursuit of human goods and interests. Very few, I would have thought, would give animal suffering no weight and similarly, very few would give animal suffering more weight than human suffering.

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Travelling for Treatment

A BBC report today suggests that “many” UK couples are going overseas to choose the sex of their children. What seems most odd about this is that in some cases they go to places where sex selection is illegal.

What is interesting here is the fascination with what people do when they go overseas or why they go overseas. There are a whole range of stories about Britons going overseas to get things that they cannot get in the UK – or cannot get in the UK as cheaply. The obvious examples are sex selection, assisted suicide or treatments not available on the NHS.

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Publishing Negative Research Results

Ben Goldacre, in the Guardian this weekend, noticed the range of headlines on health and health risks that are to be found in the media. He mentions, among others, the rise of ‘manorexia’, the failure of water to induce weight loss and the dangers of antibiotics to prevent premature birth. I found a couple more: It turns out that dark chocolate can reduce the risk of heart attacks, vegetable rich diets and in particular vegetables like broccoli reduce the chance of heart disease and stroke and turmeric, the spice that makes curries yellow, can reduce the size of hemorrhagic stroke.

It’s quite striking what research is done!

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Needles in Haystacks and Individuals in DNA Pools

An article recently published on PLOS Genetics showing that (and how) individuals can be identified by their DNA within large publicly accessible pools DNA has led to genetic data being removed from publicly accessible websites by the NIH and the Wellcome Trust. As one geneticist quoted in Science put it “We have a false sense of security with pooled data.”

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Doctors or Resource Allocators?

A recent survey by Myeloma UK, and reported on the BBC website, suggests that many doctors do not tell patients about drugs that may be beneficial and which are licensed in the UK. The trouble is that the drugs have not yet been approved by NICE and so may be difficult to obtain on the NHS. This seems to suggest that something is wrong with the way in which NICE functions with respect to licensing and that doctors are in some way complicit.

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Slaves to consent?

Nature reports that in response to analysis done by bioethicist Robert Streiffer (and published in the Hastings Center Report), Stanford University may withdraw the use for research of several of its publicly funded stem cell lines because of concerns about consent. In 2001 President Bush decreed that only lines already in existence would be eligible for federal funding – 21 lines were subsequently approved by the NIH.

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