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Bill permitting research minus consent killed

A bill that would have allowed doctors to do research on patients who aren't able to give their consent was killed by a Senate committee Wednesday.

Although supported by physicians and medical schools, the bill was opposed by a Tampa attorney for a group of women who contend they were made part of a research project at Tampa General Hospital without fully understanding what was going on.

"This whole idea of making it easier for people to experiment on the bodies of other people disturbs me," said state Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Miami Beach, apparently speaking for a majority of the Health and Rehabilitative Services committee.

State Sen. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, introduced the legislation at the request of a Crystal River emergency physician who told her of the problems that doctors are having finding the best ways to treat critically ill patients.

She emphasized that the research would have to be approved by the panels that govern research at all hospitals that get federal funding for research. And the research would have to be of the type that would not hurt patients. For instance, if doctors know that two drugs both work on patients who are having heart attacks, but they don't know which is better, that might be a suitable subject for study.

But a lone opponent to the bill apparently raised questions in the minds of the committee members.

Lora J. Smeltzly, a Tampa attorney who is working on a class-action lawsuit filed against Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida, urged the committee not to approve a bill that she said would violate constitutional rights. Instead, doctors should do their research by comparing records after patients have been treated using various drugs and techniques, she said.

Although the women in the lawsuit signed consent forms, the suit contends they weren't fully aware of what they were signing. The women weren't physically hurt by their participation, but their complaint has changed some procedures at the hospital in regard to finding research subjects, Smeltzly said.

As the doctors in the room rolled their eyes, Smeltzly suggested that if a doctor was viewing a patient as a research project, the quality of care could suffer.

The bill's proponents said their legislation had nothing to do with the Tampa General case, which has not yet been decided.

Although the companion bill was successful in the House, the Senate committee action kills the effort for this year, Thurman said.