Thursday, October 21, 2010

The value of empirical bioethics research

In response to an article by Alexander Kon, I noted an ironic situation: Within his framework, the more valuable an empirical ethics study becomes, the less apparent it is that it constitutes “ethics research.” He claims that one of the highest forms of research in bioethics is the sort that improves patient care. By that standard, the development of a drug that cured AIDS would be a higher form of ethics research than assessing attitudes toward confidentiality in AIDS research or identifying disparities in access to AIDS clinical trials. Some would say drug development research is plain and simply medical research—clinical science—not ethics research. I disagree. Kon’s position is ironic when one thinks of it; but so is most of life and irony is no sign of incoherence or falsehood.* Let’s face it, a large part of ethics concerns maximizing benefits or promoting flourishing; and most of what ethicists do does not benefit humankind nearly as much as a cure for AIDS would. Moreover, if ethics pertains to right and wrong voluntary actions—what we choose to do and to become—then any kind of research can be viewed through the lens of ethics.

Nevertheless, there is little prospect that all research will be labeled as “ethics research,” and nor should it be. Just when a study deserves that label is open to debate. I’ve tried a few definitions, and they’ve failed to capture all studies that seem appropriately labeled as “ethics research” and only such studies.

In the 1990’s, when empirical research in bioethics first started growing popular, debates about its value revolved around the question whether ethics should be determined by the opinion of the majority. It should not, of course. But this unfortunate debate arose from two sources. First, too much of the early empirical research in bioethics (my own included) consisted of polling or attitude surveys. Second, the real value of attitudes research was misunderstood. It cannot determine what is right when we are dealing with matters of principle; but many policy issues involve competing principles and lack one clearly right answer. Particularly in such cases, attitude research can provide individuals with a voice, particularly vulnerable individuals who are often not heard. Additionally, attitude research—particularly when methods are rich (e.g., focus groups or qualitative interviews)—may uncover valid ethical concerns and problems that policy makers have failed to recognize and include in their calculus. Finally, attitude research may give policy makers a sense of what might fly. All three of these benefits can be observed in a simple example. Survey and focus group research has consistently found that African-Americans are nearly 3 times as likely as Caucasians to fear that if they sign their organ donor card physicians will not try to save their life. From this research with a frequently ignored segment of society, we may glean that restoring trust is essential to any good and successful organ transplantation policy.

In any case, it would be a mistake to reduce research in the area of bioethics to polling or attitude research—even if we wish to focus on social science research. Here are a few examples of findings from robust studies with interesting study designs.

-       It was long assumed that people with schizophrenia were incapable of making their own decisions whether to enroll in a research study. Yet social science research over the past 2 decades has found that most persons with schizophrenia retain the capacity to make decisions, and when their comprehension is less than optimal, simple education interventions often suffice to provide adequate comprehension of information.
-       Many physicians have claimed that having a former college cheerleader (drug rep) buy lunch for their department (sponsor a continuing education program) could never change the way they prescribe medications to their patients. Yet studies of physician behavior have shown the opposite. How is this possible when many physicians earnestly doubt they can be bought for the price of a sandwich? Because many of the psychological processes involved operate subconsciously (e.g., the tendency toward reciprocity when given a gift).
-       Some claim that we should not address the shortage of primary care physicians in the US by expanding the number of advanced practice (AP) nurses. They argue that AP nurses will not serve patients as well given that they have less scientific and clinical training, and that most patients would prefer to see a physician. Yet, reviews of outcome studies have generally found that patients’ health outcomes are typically as good and their satisfaction is frequently better with AP nurses. While the quality of some of these studies has been questioned (perhaps legitimately), physicians have yet to produce studies that show the superiority of primary physician care over AP nurse care.

Who thinks our ethical deliberations on these respective ethical and policy questions would be as sound without such data? Aristotle believed that good ethics had to be grounded in experience; social science research is capable of collecting the experience of many and sharing it in ways that enhance the practical wisdom of individuals.

* Elsewhere I’ve argued that life is both absurd and meaningful. That life is absurd seems obvious to me; that it is meaningful requires argumentation, maybe even faith. See “Absurdity, God, and the Sad Chimps We Are.” 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What do Frenchmen and research methods share in common?

When I first met my wife I bragged about my pure French lineage: All 4 of my grandparents originated from Quebec. She responded, "My father says there are no pure Frenchmen." Either way you read it, she's right.

Similarly, there are no pure methods in the social sciences--only families of methods that ought to be adapted to a specific project. I'll illustrate this with the example of a Delphi survey I conducted with Jeff Dueker in 2007: Teaching and Assessing the Responsible Conduct of Research: A Delphi Panel Report.

Delphi surveys (or Delphi panels) are unlike most surveys: They do not aim to generate knowledge (e.g., about attitudes); rather they aim to generate a consensus. We wanted to achieve a consensus on what should be taught and assessed in those responsible conduct of research (RCR) courses that trainees and other researchers are often required to take. The US Office of Research Integrity had earlier identified a few "core areas" for instruction; but there was considerable debate on what should be taught (e.g., are there universally agreed upon standards for authorship across fields?), what should be assessed (e.g., should we assess commitment to values?), and above all, what the fundamental aims of RCR education should be (e.g., to foster compliance with regulations, ethical problem solving skills, or knowledge of abstract ethical principles?).

Delphi surveys generally involve forming a group of "panelists" and administering several rounds of a questionnaire to the panelists individually. For example, our round 1 questionnaire ask open-ended questions such as "What should be the overarching goals of RCR instruction?" The round 2 questionnaire took all panelists' responses, reduced them to clear and non-redundant goal statements, and asked them to rate the importance of the goals using a 5-point Likert-type scale. Round 3 presented a shorter list of just those items that were endorsed as "important" or "very important" by 2/3's of the group during round 2. We repeated the process to generate a short list of 9 key objectives for RCR instruction that were endorsed by a group of experts.

I was familiar with Delphi surveys others had conducted. But when I did a literature review on the method itself, I could not find clear and consistent guidelines. How many panelists do you need? What should qualify someone as a panelist? How many rounds will suffice? What constitutes support for an item (e.g., "agree" or "strongly agree"?). What constitutes a consensus (e.g., 2/3's agree? 3/4 strongly agree?) What do you do with the results from panelists who participate in some but not all rounds? How much liberty can you take when condensing, organizing, and presenting the results of open-ended items? Should we report mean Likert values (e.g., item 9 had a mean score of 4.2) or rather the percent of experts endorsing an items with a value of 4 (important) or 5 (very important)?

What we found were articles that described generally how Delphi surveys work and how they have been applied in marketing studies or in establishing organizational goals. Even when we found studies that used a Delphi panel for curriculum development, we found that their approach would not meet our needs. We decided to use a lot of experts (n=43) clustered into 4 groups of expertise. We decided we needed to use an online format to accommodate disparate locations and schedules. We decided to start with open-ended questions even though this would mean more work. (It would make it clear the panelists generated the content of recommendations, not the project directors).

Rarely will you find a manual that provides clear guidance on how to apply a method to your study questions. All methods need to be adapted. Naturally, not all adaptations are kosher; at some point, the method may be changed so radically it becomes invalid or at least loses its membership in a family of methods like the Delphi survey. In modifying a method it is essential to have a good rationale for your adaptations, to describe your method accurately in publications, to describe the rationale for unusual features of the method, and to be aware of the limitations of whatever you decide and to discuss them frankly.

Conclusion: You won't find a guidebook on how to design YOUR study. You will need to apply any method critically, adapting it to your research questions, budget, participant group, etc. If you cannot do this well, you should collaborate with a creative and knowledgeable methodologist.