Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dreger Wants to Scrap IRBs

On the heels of Laura Stark's Los Angeles Times op-ed calling for the replacement of local IRBs with centralized boards of experts, historian Alice Dreger has published her own call for a national system of ethics review based on expertise and transparency.

[Alice Dreger, "Nationalizing IRBs for Biomedical Research – and for Justice," Bioethics Forum, 22 October 2010.]

Troubled by her IRB's approval of a project she considers unethical, and by Carl Elliott's White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine, Dreger concludes that the system of local review is ineffective:

We’ve reached the point where many people in medicine and medical ethics don’t even expect IRBs to act as something other than liability shields for their universities. But do patients who come to us only to be turned into subjects know that? Do they know that there is literally a price on their heads put there by research recruiters?

I’ve come to believe we need a radical solution. Maybe what we need is a nationalized system of IRBs for biomedical research, one that operates on the model of circuit courts, so that relationships cannot easily develop between the IRBs and the people seeking approval. This system could be run out of the Office for Human Research Protections and involve districts, similar to the federal courts system. Deliberations would be made transparent, so that all interested parties could understand (and question) decisions being made.

Think of the advantages: the possibility of actually focusing on the protection of human subjects first and foremost, free of conflicts of interest; the possibility of having nothing but trained professionals (not rotating unqualified faculty and staff) sitting on review panels; the possibility of marking biomedical research as clearly different from the social science and educational research unreasonably managed by many IRBs; the possibility of much greater transparency to those interested in seeing what’s going on; the possibility of having multi-center trials obtain a single approval from one centralized IRB, rather than trying to manage approvals from multiple local institutions. And the possibility of shutting down the deeply opaque, highly questionable private IRBs Elliott describes as being increasingly used by universities. (Go ahead, call me a Communist for caring about the Common Rule.)

Her Communist leanings aside, I don't know why Dreger presents her argument as a defense of the Common Rule, which fails to distinguish between biomedical and social research, puts ethics review in the hands of rotating unqualified faculty and staff, and keeps deliberations opaque. But her wish for the kind of coordination and transparency provided by the court system has a long lineage. I've quoted it before, and I'll quote it again:

The review committees work in isolation from one another, and no mechanisms have been established for disseminating whatever knowledge is gained from their individual experiences. Thus, each committee is condemned to repeat the process of finding its own answers. This is not only an overwhelming, unnecessary and unproductive assignment, but also one which most review committees are neither prepared nor willing to assume.

[Jay Katz, testimony, U.S. Senate, Quality of Health Care—Human Experimentation, 1973: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Health of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Part 3 (93d Cong., 1st sess., 1973), 1050].

It is not lack of good intentions or hard work that leads IRBs to restrict ethically sound surveys while permitting unethical experimental surgery. It is the ignorance and isolation identified by Katz in 1973 and still in place today.

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