Government Shutdown Slowing Medical Research In Boston And Beyond

A sign on Tuesday informs visitors to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the nation’s oldest public meeting hall, that restrooms are closed as a result of the partial government shutdown. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

A sign on Tuesday informs visitors to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the nation’s oldest public meeting hall, that restrooms are closed as a result of the partial government shutdown. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

I didn’t think I could get any more appalled by the partial federal government shutdown. Then I heard that its effects are reaching beyond national parks and immigration offices, to the sort of National Institutes of Health biomedical research that can potentially save lives.

The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly three-quarters of the NIH staff had been furloughed, and as a result, about 200 patients a week, manly cancer patients, would not be admitted to clinical trials there.

Here in Boston, we asked Dr. Amy Roberts, a cardiovascular geneticist and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, how the first day of the shutdown affected her. She normally spends about half her time seeing patients and the other half doing clinical research. Her response:

During the course of my day there were three instances when I had to do something with an NIH entity that could not be completed because of the government shutdown.

What starts out as an inconvenience adds up to significant delays in research and experimental treatments.

Next week I am due to go to a meeting organized in part by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the NIH. I had a question about the agenda for the meeting but no one was in the office.

One of my former trainees is due for renewal of an NIH-based loan repayment program for physician scientists. I need to submit an online letter of recommendation for him but the website is inactive due to the shutdown.

Finally, I was contacted last week to clarify drug dosing for an upcoming clinical trial and the email I sent today to answer the NIH’s question was met with the automatic reply below.

“Due to the absence of either an FY 2014 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for the Department of Health and Human Services, I am out of the office on furlough and I am not able to read or respond to your message. If you require immediate attention, please contact the NCATS Admin Help@mail.nih.gov.”

Every time this happens it means that something I should have gotten done today is deferred, which wastes time and slows efficiency and progress. The clinical trial I am working on to bring a new treatment to children born with a rare form of heart disease is on hold without any way to proceed until the government and thus the NIH is back to business. Multiply my experience by the thousands of researchers who also work with the federal government and what starts out as an inconvenience adds up to significant delays in research and experimental treatments for children and adults who need it most.

Readers in medical research, are you experiencing anything similar? Please share in the comments below.

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