The more prominent item was a December 30, 2007, New York Times op-ed, "A Lifesaving Checklist" by Dr. Atul Gawande. Gawande describes efforts by the Johns Hopkins University and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association to offer five-step checklists to intensive-care providers, to help them remember to wash their hands and take other steps to avoid infection. OHRP shut the project down, even though it had been ruled exempt by the Hopkins IRB. (So much for local control.)
Although I try to keep this blog focused on issues concerning the humanities and social sciences, and to avoid issues concerning strictly medical research, I was struck by OHRP's determination that "the subjects of the research were both the healthcare providers at the participating ICUs and their patients." Are healthcare providers really human subjects in a case like this?
A similar question arose in a non-medical setting a few weeks later. In her pseudonymous blog on Education Week, eduwonkette complained that New York City teachers were being studied without their consent and without the approval of an IRB. Since eduwonkette herself concedes that "teachers did not need to consent in this case, as they are government employees and their employers can collect whatever data they want," I don't understand why she thought an IRB should be involved. But it does suggest that the question of studying employee effectiveness is not limited to medical contexts.
Poking around in my research notes, I find that at the July 1977 meeting of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Dr. Karen Lebacqz raised just this issue as a hypothetical:
"Suppose you want to do a study that involves changing the delivery of services in a mental institution ward. The patients in the institution are the ones that you want to study in terms of what the impact is on their recovery rates and so on. The staff who work on that ward will also be very directly impacted by the research. Do they constitute subjects, even though the design and the purpose of the research is not set up to study the impact on them of what you are going to do?"
While Albert Jonsen initially suggested that the staff would constitute subjects, other commissioners disagreed:
Lebacqz. “There is a very direct impact on the licensed staff.
Ryan. “Then the administrator can force it on them as a condition of employment.
Turtle. “Yes, I was going to say, that is the whole key, it is a condition of employment. Many things that, while I am a great libertarian here, lots of things I ask the people who work for me to do, I don’t ask them for their informed consent.”
[National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Transcript, Meeting #32, July 1977 (Bethesda: The Commission, 1977), 133-135.]
After this exchange, the commission moved onto another subject, suggesting a consensus that employees are not human subjects whose informed consent is required. In its recent determination letters on the checklist project, OHRP has ruled the opposite.
I don't expect the compliance officers at OHRP to be familiar with the commission's deliberations, and I fault the commission for not defining human subjects more carefully. But it's worth noting how far OHRP has strayed from the commission whose work nominally informs its decisions.