Health

The Ethics of Social Prescribing: An Overview

Written by Rebecca Brown, Stephanie Tierney, Amadea Turk.

This post was originally published on the NIHR School for Primary Care Research website which can be accessed here

Health problems often co-occur with social and personal factors (e.g. isolation, debt, insecure housing, unemployment, relationship breakdown and bereavement). Such factors can be particularly important in the context of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), where they might contribute causally to disease, or reduce that capacity of patients to self-manage their conditions (leading to worse outcomes). This results in the suffering of individuals and a greater burden being placed on healthcare resources.

A potential point of intervention is at the level of addressing these upstream contributors to poor health. A suggested tool – gaining momentum amongst those involved in health policy – is the use of ‘social prescribing’. Social prescribing focuses on addressing people’s non-medical needs, which it is hoped will subsequently reduce their medical needs. In primary care, social prescribing can take a range of forms. For example, it may involve upskilling existing members of staff (e.g. receptionists) to signpost patients to relevant local assets (e.g. organisations, groups, charities) to address their non-medical needs. It is also becoming common for GPs to refer patients (or people may self-refer) to a link worker (sometimes called a care navigator) who can work with them to identify their broader social and personal needs. Together, they then develop a plan for how those needs could be met through engagement with activities, services or events in the local community. The resources that link workers direct people towards are often run by voluntary organisations and might include, among other things, sports groups, arts and crafts, drama, gardening, cookery, volunteering, housing advice, debt management, and welfare rights.

Supporting people to establish more stable and fulfilling social lives whilst at the same time reducing healthcare costs seems like a win-win. However, it is essential to evaluate the justifications for the introduction of social prescribing schemes, including their effectiveness. This raises a number of complicating factors, including some questions that require not just a consideration of empirical evidence, but a commitment to certain philosophical and ethical positions.

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Criticising Stigma Whilst Reinforcing it: the Case of the Response to CRUK’s Anti-Obesity Campaign

Written by Rebecca Brown

There has been recent concern over CRUK’s (Cancer Research UK) latest campaign, which features the claim ‘obesity is a cause of cancer too’ made to look like cigarette packets. It follows criticism of a previous, related campaign which also publicised links between obesity and cancer. Presumably, CRUK’s aim is to increase awareness of obesity as a risk factor for cancer and, in doing so, encourage people to avoid (contributors to) obesity. It may also be hoped to encourage public support for policies which tackle obesity, pushing the Overton window in a direction which is likely to permit further political action in this domain.

The backlash is mostly focused around the comparison with smoking, and the use of smoking-related imagery to promote the message (there is further criticism of the central causal claim, since it is actually quite difficult to establish that obesity causes cancer). 

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Responsibility Over Time And Across Agents

Rebecca Brown and Julian Savulescu

Cross-posted from the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, available here.

There is a rich literature on the philosophy of responsibility: how agents come to be responsible for certain actions or consequences; what conditions excuse people from responsibility; who counts as an ‘apt candidate’ for responsibility; how responsibility links to blameworthiness; what follows from deciding that someone is blameworthy. These questions can be asked of actions relating to health and the diseases people may suffer as a consequence. A familiar debate surrounds the provision of liver transplants (a scarce commodity) to people who suffer liver failure as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. For instance, if they are responsible for suffering liver failure, that could mean they are less deserving of a transplant than someone who suffers liver failure unrelated to alcohol consumption.

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Abolish Medical Ethics

Written by Charles Foster

In a recent blog post on this site Dom Wilkinson, writing about the case of Vincent Lambert, said this:

If, as is claimed by Vincent’s wife, Vincent would not have wished to remain alive, then the wishes of his parents, of other doctors or of the Pope, are irrelevant. My views or your views on the matter, likewise, are of no consequence. Only Vincent’s wishes matter. And so life support must stop.’

The post was (as everything Dom writes is), completely coherent and beautifully expressed. I say nothing here about my agreement or otherwise with his view – which is comfortably in accord with the zeitgeist, at least in the academy. My purpose is only to point out that if he is right, there is no conceivable justification for a department of medical ethics. Dom is arguing himself out of a job. Continue reading

In Praise Of Dementia

By Charles Foster

Statistically there is a good chance that I will ultimately develop dementia. It is one of the most feared conditions, but bring it on, I say.

It will strip me of some of my precious memories and some of my cognitive function, but it will also strip me of many of the neuroses that make life wretched. It may (but see below) make me anxious because the world takes on an unaccustomed form, but surely there are worse anxieties that are dependent on full function – such as hypochondriacal worries, or the worry that comes from watching the gradual march of a terminal illness. On balance the trade seems a good one. Continue reading

Medical Nihilism: When A Dose Of Scepticism Can Be Healthy

In his 2018 book, the philosopher of science, Jacob Stegenga defends the view “that we should have little confidence in the effectiveness of medical interventions.” (Stegenga 2018) On the face of it, he acknowledges, this position seems unreasonable: most of us can think of myriad ways in which modern medicine has improved – perhaps saved – our own lives and the lives of those close to us. The asthma attack I had as a baby, effectively treated at the time and subsequently managed through the use of seemingly magical medications which relax the muscles around the airways, opening them up and allowing air to pass freely again. Or the schoolfriend whose ruptured appendix could have resulted in a fatal infection, but for emergency surgery and the administration of antibiotics. Or the countless lives made less painful by the availability of cheap and safe painkillers. 

Medical sceptics tend to get a bad rep – anti-vaxxers who risk the lives of children by regurgitating debunked myths about the links between vaccines and autism, leading to dips in herd immunity and disease outbreaks; credulous folk who believe in the mystical powers of homeopathy and eschew conventional therapies in favour of potions that contain little more than water. This is not the sort of company one wishes to associate with. Continue reading

Take Back Control? Doctors as Appointed Fiduciaries

Written by Ben Davies

There’s a story that’s often told about the evolution of the doctor-patient relationship. Here’s how it goes: back in the bad old days, doctors were paternalists. They knew what was best, and the job of the patient was simply to do as they were told and hopefully get better. Then, in part because of abuses of power, and in part because of cultural changes, a new model emerged. This model cast patients not as passive recipients of instruction, but as active, autonomous agents, put in charge of their own medical decisions. The doctor-patient relationship was remodelled, from a paternalistic relationship (doctor looks after patient’s health) to a service relationship (doctor does what patient wants, within limits).

That story is almost certainly too simple to be true. But even histories that aren’t wholly accurate can come to influence our culture and expectations. And the dominant assumption between both patients and medical professionals seems to be that our relationship will be cast on what is sometimes called the “informative model” (Emmanuel and Emmanuel, 1992), where the medical role is simply to provide the patient with empirical information, such as information about likely risks and outcomes.

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Reversibility, Colds, and Neurosurgery

By Jonny Pugh

This blog was originally published on the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog

 

Happy new year to readers of the blog!

I always approach the new year with some trepidation. This is not just due to the terrible weather, or even my resolution to take more exercise (unfortunately in the aforementioned terrible weather). Instead, I approach January with a sense of dread because it is always when I seem to come down with the common cold.

In my recent research, I have been interested in the nature and moral significance of reversibility, and the common cold is an interesting case study of this concept. In this blog, I will use this example to very briefly preview a couple of points that I make in a forthcoming open access article about reversibility in the context of psychiatric neurosurgery. You can read the open access paper here.

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Abortion: a Law Unto Itself

By   Charles Foster

Wrongful life cases (typically where a birth has resulted from a failed sterilisation procedure), used to be big business. The parents would sue the negligent steriliser for the costs of bringing up the unwanted child. There was always something distasteful about parents unwishing their child, and this distaste found legal expression in Macfarlane v Tayside Health Board,1  where the House of Lords said that such claims were unlawful. The ratio of Macfarlane was summarised by the Lord Steyn in Rees v Darlington Memorial Hospital NHS Trust:2 Continue reading

Press Statement: Monstrous Gene Editing Experiment

Chinese researcher He Jiankui of Shenzhen claims to have gene edited two healthy embryos, resulting in the birth of baby girls born this month, Lulu and Nana. He edited a gene to make the babies resistant to HIV. One girl has both copies of the gene modified while the other has only one (making her still susceptible to HIV). 

If true, this experiment is monstrous. The embryos were healthy. No known diseases. Gene editing itself is experimental and is still associated with off-target mutations, capable of causing genetic problems early and later in life, including the development of cancer. There are many effective ways to prevent HIV in healthy individuals: for example, protected sex. And there are effective treatments if one does contract it.

This experiment exposes healthy normal children to risks of gene editing for no real necessary benefit.

It contravenes decades on ethical consensus and guidelines on the protection of human participants in research.

In many other places in the world, this would be illegal punishable by imprisonment.

Could gene editing ever be ethical? If the science progressed in the future and off target mutations reduced to acceptable and accurately measurable level, it might be reasonable to consider first-in-human trials (with appropriate safeguards and thorough ethics review) in one category of embryos: those with otherwise lethal catastrophic genetic mutations who are certain to die. Gene editing for this group might be life-saving; for these current babies, it is only life-risking.

These healthy babies are being used as genetic guinea pigs. This is genetic Russian Roulette.

Prof Julian Savulescu

Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics

Director Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

University of Oxford

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