Portrait photo of Kenneth Richman
Faculty Feature

MCPHS Professor Kenneth Richman on Coronavirus Research Ethics

Portrait photo of Kenneth Richman

Kenneth Richman, PhD., Professor of Philosophy and Healthcare Ethics at MCPHS, recently spoke with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) about research ethics during the coronavirus outbreak. The situation is urgent enough, Dr. Richman says, that perhaps some ordinary ethical research safeguards might not apply to finding a vaccine and treatments. But his main point during the conversation was that we cannot let urgency get in the way of good science.

"If we do research badly," says Richman, "we can do a lot of damage...We're all stressed. And that means we have fewer cognitive resources to do a good job here. So it's really important to take a breath, slow down in some ways, even in the face of a very urgent situation. "The most important thing about research is that we do it right."

That said, Richman does believe we need to look at these circumstances as unique. This is a time for sharing discoveries, not for typical competition. "There's a really important imperative not to hog data," he says. "If [researchers] don't share it, they're going to hold back advances." And since this virus is spreading so quickly, we don't have time not to collaborate and work together in ways that go beyond business as usual.

Richman also stresses that officials and researchers "have an ethical obligation to communicate clearly and accurately." He believes that, even in a crisis, our ethical responsibility to each individual patient remains. Researchers need to make sure that people don't sign up for research that they don't understand. Individuals are often vulnerable to what's called the therapeutic misconception: that participation in a research study is the same as treatment. That's not always the case, Richman says, and it is important to communicate clearly on that point.

One unique opportunity he does see during the coronavirus pandemic? Designing research with front-line healthcare responders as participants. They are already being exposed to virus carriers, and healthcare workers are likely less vulnerable to the therapeutic misconception than the general public. So we can and should design prophylaxis studies; that is, try to figure out what works best in preventing them from contracting the virus when exposed to it.

In the end, says Dr. Richman, it's vital "that beneficence accrues to each arm of the study." We need to be concerned with the well-being of each individual and the community at large. And he been encouraged with what he's seen. While evidence shows that people don't usually sign up for research simply to further science but instead to try to treat their own illnesses, he's not seen that to be the case right now. He's seeing a more selfless kind of action.

"People are willing to do things to help the community," says Richman, "and it's fantastic."

Listen to his insights.