My latest Forbes column is now up: “UK To Experiment on Cardiac Arrest Patients Without Their Consent“.
Here is the opening:
Soon, thousands of UK cardiac arrest patients may find themselves enrolled in a major medical experiment, without their consent. This may be legal. But is it ethical?
“Paramedics will give patients whose heart has stopped a dummy drug as part of an ‘ethically questionable’ study into whether adrenalin works in resuscitation or not… Patients in cardiac arrest will receive either a shot of adrenalin, which is the current practice, or a salt water placebo but the patient, their relatives nor the paramedic administering it will know which. The trial is seen to be controversial because patients will not be able to consent to taking part and could receive a totally useless placebo injection…”
First, I want to emphasize that this is a legitimate scientific question. Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) has been a standard part of the resuscitation protocol for sudden cardiac arrest, along with chest compressions and electrical shocks. (Think of paramedics shouting “clear” on television medical dramas.) But more recent evidence suggests that adrenaline might cause more harm than good in this situation, helping start the heart but possibly also causing some neurological damage. There is a valid and important scientific question. My concern is not over the science behind the experiment, but rather the ethics…
(For more details and discussion, read the full text of “UK To Experiment on Cardiac Arrest Patients Without Their Consent“.)
There are two parts of the study that disturb me the most: (1) The drug trial itself, and (2) the decision to not actively inform relatives that any patient who died had been an involuntary participant. I cover both aspects in more detail in the piece.
Note: I’m not fully settled on what (if any) experimentation should be allowed on incapacitated patients in an emergency setting without informed consent. But I do think this should be an issue of active discussion, especially for the people whose lives are on the line.
And for a discussion of prior US medical experiments that have been alleged to be unethical, non-consensual, or illegal, see this Wikipedia list.