This case is already all over the web [starting here], but it has an unusual health care slant which has heretofore not been covered, so....
The University of Delaware, a large, state-supported US university, which includes a College of Health Sciences, recently instituted a new "treatment"program for university students, described in the draft of a detailed report. [Following page references are from that report.] (References to the program, also described as a curriculum, as a "treatment" are on page 8, 10, and 14) Subjects will be exposed to educational and behavioral interventions, the latter described in one document as that which will "leave a mental footprint on their consciousness." An example of one behavioral intervention requires subjects to line up, then step forward or backward in response to questions about their social identities [see p. 2 of this letter.]. The program will be subject to "action research" [p. 3], which "is generally distinguished by being practioner based, focused on actual existing practices, and using data to improve existing practices," [p. 4] and possibly also "summative, research style studies" [p. 3] Outcomes to be assessed include "behavioral changes in reaction to ... educational strategies." [p. 5] Data collection methods include "surveys, formal inteviews, focus group[s]" [p. 11] Subjects with the worst outcomes in particular groups would be individually identified, and subject to additional interventions [see p. 3 of this letter.] The investigators claimed the research "would qualify for an exemption from full [institutional review] board review." [p. 12]
So far, this sounds unremarkable, but, just has been extensively reported by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the subjects of this "treatment" program are all students living in all University of Delaware dormitories, not patients with any defined conditions or diseases. Furthermore, as the FIRE case file makes very clear, participation is mandatory. Not only is consent not required for participation, students must participate in the "treatment" and in the associated "action research" study whether or not they want to.
As FIRE noted in a letter to university president, there are a set of objections to all this based on the content of the intervention, which seems to designed to inculcate political beliefs, rather than to educate, and which requires students to affirm beliefs they may not actually hold. For a government institution to expose students to what seems to be mandatory political indoctrination, and to require students to express beliefs which are not theirs raise major constitutional issues.
Setting those aside, this program seems to profoundly violate some fundamental values of health care and of human research. Except in very particular cases of incompetent patients or patients who are at immediate risk of harming themselves and others, no one should be subject to a treatment without his or her consent. In such a situation, compelling subjects to participate in associated research is equally unethical.
Some may argue that the university's description of this project as "treatment" was metaphor or rhetorical excess. However, the repeated use of that term, plus description of the project in behavioral terms, and the clear human research component invite viewing the project as a treatment intervention and associated human research plan.
For an American state university to have gone so far in a plan for mandatory behavioral "treatment" of students without their consent is chilling. It is a reminder that something has clearly gone very wrong in health care and academia, and that the problems are clearly not at all limited to the for-profit corporate sector.
ADDENDUM (3 November, 2007) - the University of Delaware has cancelled its mandatory "treatment" program, as covered by FIRE.
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