Henrietta Lacks did not give researchers permission to take her cancer cells and study them. After she died in 1951, her family was not asked permission as her immortalized cells were used in countless laboratories. This month, the National Institutes of Health finally took a step in righting that wrong, announcing that the Lacks family would help decide who can access Henrietta’s DNA.
Today, getting a patient’s permission, often in writing, is standard in experimental medical research. Well, not always. Currently, there are at least nine ongoing studies involving 62 U.S. cities and towns with a combined population of more than 45 million that do not involve getting permission. They take place during emergencies, such as when ambulances arrive at an accident where patients are too injured to give permission.
For example, imagine this scenario based on a recent study sponsored by the University of Washington. You are involved in a car accident. Paramedics find you bleeding severely. They give you fluids to keep your blood pressure up, but they intentionally give you a bag of fluid that is smaller than the standard. Then they monitor your medical outcome and compare it with patients who received the larger amount of fluids. During the emergency, neither you nor your family know about the study.
Research on medical emergencies is vital in determining how to care for people with life-threatening injuries because we often do not have proof that standard methods are the best. People involved should be told that is how their records are being used.
In 1996, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration passed regulations allowing research about emergency treatment to occur without permission. For a study to qualify, patients need to have a life-threatening condition, current standards of care must be unproven or performing poorly, and obtaining permission must not be feasible (such as an unconscious patient or a patient whose condition does not allow time for informed consent).