Are Physicians Morally Obligated to Prescribe Experimental Therapies?

A doctor reassuring a patient.

(© missty/Fotolia)

The federal 'Right to Try' bill in the United States recently passed the House and requires Senate approval before it becomes law. The bill would provide patients access to experimental drugs and other products that have not received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including stem cell treatments.

It's not enough to act on a hunch that it might work.

Most folks think this is a good thing, but several express concern over whether the law would truly help patients. Even if a company allows patients to access an experimental drug, an important question remains: Should a doctor prescribe it?

Before such a drug can be prescribed, the federal bill states that a physician must "certify" that the patient has exhausted all available treatments or does not meet the criteria for standard treatment. Even after determining eligibility, a physician needs to consider a few points first. It's not enough to act on a hunch that it might work. The concept of medical innovation could help doctors figure out if prescribing an experimental treatment is the right thing to do.

Medical innovation falls within the doctor's scope of practice. Based on their experience and sound scientific rationale, physicians can "innovate" and offer treatment tailored to a patient with the goal of improving health. This differs from the goal of clinical research, which is to produce generalizable knowledge, not necessarily to benefit patients. In medical specialties like surgery, many of the standard procedures were developed through medical innovation, not clinical trials. Under the 'Right to Try,' a physician could ethically prescribe an experimental therapy as medical innovation if the following conditions are met.

Medical innovation should follow similar ethical and scientific oversight as clinical research.

First, there must be sound scientific rationale, and evidence of safety and efficacy of the innovative treatment from preclinical (animal and lab) research or clinical (human) research. The 'Right to Try' bill permits access to experimental products only after safety is demonstrated from a phase 1 clinical trial. This initial testing, called "first in human," aims to determine safety and dosing of an experimental product on typically around 20 to 100 people who are healthy volunteers or have a condition. This way, a physician can be assured that there is some evidence indicating the product is safe.

Efficacy must be demonstrated in animal and lab preclinical studies in order to gain permission from the FDA to do a phase 1 trial in the first place. This way, a doctor can also be assured that sound scientific rationale exists indicating a potential benefit to the patient. Only through further phase 2 and 3 clinical trials on hundreds or more people would a doctor know with greater certainty that the therapy works, but this might take many more years.

A doctor should not completely rely on what others in the scientific community think about the experimental treatment and should have appropriate expertise. This includes knowledge about the disease, familiarity with treating such patients, and an understanding of how the experimental treatment works, including administering it.

Second, medical innovation should follow similar ethical and scientific oversight as clinical research. Physicians should write a protocol for administering the experimental therapy and have it reviewed by clinical, scientific, and ethics experts at their institution. A protocol would include all the information on how the doctor would provide the therapy to patients, including dosages, monitoring, what happens if there are side effects, and much more. The experts would examine various components of the plan, look at informed consent, and ensure a favorable benefit-to-risk ratio, among other aspects.

When weighing whether to prescribe an experimental treatment, doctors need to base this decision on sound science and relevant clinical experience, not on hope or desperation.

Third, doctors should properly inform their patients about the risks (including if the risks are unknown), possible benefits, and the details of the procedure to be undertaken, and they must obtain the patient's consent.

Fourth, physicians should thoroughly monitor and diligently document all aspects of the outcomes of the procedure, various clinical indicators, and adverse events. During the course of providing an experimental therapy, if harm to a patient occurs, the physician is obligated to alter the course of the treatment or stop it. Similarly, if evidence from an ongoing clinical trial shows that the experimental treatment might help some but not all patients, the doctor needs to modify the plan accordingly.

Fifth, upon completing the experimental treatment, physicians should publish their findings to share the knowledge. Note that medical innovation is not meant to replace clinical trials. The two can be complementary, and medical innovation can lead to the design of clinical trials to demonstrate safety and efficacy.

Other experts may not agree that it can be ethical for a physician to prescribe an unapproved drug. Such dissenters would claim that physicians should only prescribe medications when there is substantial scientific and clinical certainty that a product is safe and effective for patients. They are also likely to oppose most forms of medical innovation. Yet even after undergoing rigorous clinical trials, some approved products have been shown to be unsafe or ineffective and are removed from the market.

While it seems that more evidence is better, doctors need to be mindful that patients are suffering and some may never receive access to drugs still in the pipeline. Bound by the Hippocratic Oath – the main tenet being "do no harm" – doctors are obligated to prescribe therapies that will help their patients. When weighing whether to prescribe an experimental treatment, doctors need to base this decision on sound science and relevant clinical experience, not on hope or desperation. Given that patients who want to participate in the 'Right to Try' movement have exhausted all other options and their condition may be worsening, it would seem ethically appropriate for a physician to treat them with an experimental drug, as long as the criteria listed above are satisfied.

The views expressed are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Mayo Clinic.

Zubin Master
Zubin Master, PhD is an Associate Consultant II in the Biomedical Ethics Research Program at Mayo Clinic. Previously, he was an Associate Professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College. He has also held appointments at the University of Alberta, University of Montreal, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Dr. Master also worked in public service as a Senior Policy Advisor at Health Canada in areas of assisted reproduction and scientific integrity. He holds an undergraduate degree in genetics from York University, a PhD in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Toronto, and completed post-doctoral fellowships in bioethics and health policy at Dalhousie University and the University of British Columbia. His research interests focus on the ethics and policy of research specializing in stem cell research, genetics, and research integrity. Dr. Master serves on several committees and journal editorial boards and has published over 70 articles. Dr. Master has not received any remuneration for writing for leapsmag.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.


This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.