Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Last modified: May 22, 2017

The Dallas Buyers Club pictures the life of Rod Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician and hustler who was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. At a time when the disease was still poorly understood and highly stigmatized, Woodroof set up the Dallas Buyers Club. Its purpose was to find and distribute (unapproved) drugs to treat HIV patients, but it soon faced opposition from the Food and Drug Administration who banned all experimental drugs the Club provided.

Relevance

This film raises questions about the ethics of clinical testing, especially when there is no alternative treatment, only death.

This movie is included in the Fiction movies for RCR education.

Key words: Ethics (medical)
Medium: DVD: This film is available on DVD
Fragments: 1

  • Fragment 1 [19:53-22:20]

Internet Movie Database (IMDb) about this movie: IMDb
Biography / Drama / playing time: 117 min.

Content and context

This film pictures the life of Rod Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrician and hustler who was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. At a time when the disease was still poorly understood and highly stigmatized, Woodroof set up the Dallas Buyers Club. Its purpose was to find and distribute (unapproved) drugs to treat HIV patients, but it soon faced opposition from the Food and Drug Administration who banned all experimental drugs the Club provided.

Fragment [19:53 – 22:20]

In this fragment Woodroof has just been told that he has AIDS and approximately 30 days left to live. He is desperate to find medication to prolong his life and he discovers that his hospital is experimenting with an FDA-approved drug for HIV called zidovudine (AZT). This fragment pictures a conversation between Woodroof and dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) in which he asks her for a subscription for AZT. Dr. Sacks then explains to him the true meaning of a clinical trial (double blinded) in which only half of the HIV patients receive the drug and the other half is given a placebo, as this is the only way to determine whether the drug really works. In other words, she cannot guarantee him that he would get the drugs.

Ethics

The moral dilemma here is both general and personal. According to the rules of science, a drug of which the effects are still unknown has to be tested within the limits of a clinical trial (drug vs. placebo). This is the best way to find out whether a drug works. But when it comes to a disease that has no alternative treatment, only death, the ethical basis of a clinical trial becomes questionable, since patients without it have no chance at all.

On a personal scale dr. Saks is confronted with a choice between science and compassion. Even though she believes in the importance of clinical trials, she is now left to the challenge of telling her patient, a man who is dying and who can only desperately hope for AZT, that she cannot promise him the drug. Even though they both know that the drug is right there – dr. Saks even has access to it- science in this case doesn’t allow compassion.

Realism

This fragment is very realistic. Every drug that is tested is done so by clinical trials. The problem with a clinical trial is that it is meant to test a drug, not to help a research subject directly. In the case of a new drug that is experimental and where there is a good standard treatment for the disease, this does not have to be a problem. But when the disease, like HIV, will necessarily kill the people infected, a clinical trial is a controversial from an ethical point of view.

Suggested use in education

This fragment is especially interesting for medical students and can be used as an incentive to reflect upon the ethics of clinical testing. Accompanying questions could be: (1) do you think a clinical trial with an FDA-approved drug against a disease that kills all the people infected, is ethical? (2) What if you were diagnosed with HIV, would you still think it is right that you might be given a placebo?

Ending

Although dr. Saks never doubts the importance of a clinical trial, she does get involved in the Dallas Buyers Club. Although she does not support Woodroof directly, she raises her voice within the hospital, trying to convince her colleagues about the importance of not only science but also to take into account the people who they are using as research subjects, in other word the people who are actually dying from the disease.

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