These Pharma-Paid "Key Opinion Leaders" Know Better

At "The Lancet Emphasizes the Threats to the Academic Medical Mission" Roy Poses summarized the major categories of ills affecting healthcare today.

The list reads like a list of the Ten Plagues of Egypt visited upon the Pharaohs (actually thirteen categories are listed, but plagues they are indeed to patients and conscientious medical practitioners).

This list, with keyword-hyperlinked examples, can serve as an index to the threats to healthcare's core values covered at the Healthcare Renewal blog:

  • 1. Abandonment of traditional prohibitions of the commercial practice of medicine
  • 2. Making money takes precedence over education
  • 3. The medical school re-imagined as a biotechnology company
  • 4. Faculty become employees of industry
  • 5. Academics become "key opinion leaders" paid to market drugs and devices
  • 6. Control of clinical research given to commercial sponsors
  • 7. Conflicts of interest allow manipulation and suppression of clinical research
  • 8. Academics take credit for articles written by commercially paid ghost-writers
  • 9. Whistle blowers are discouraged, or worse, and academic freedom is damaged
  • 10. Leadership of academic medical centers by businesspeople
  • 11. Leaders of teaching hospitals and universities become millionaires
  • 12. Medical school leaders become stewards (as members of boards of directors) of for-profit health care corporations
  • 13. Leaders of failed finance firms become stewards of academic medicine

Today in my local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, an article that focused on plagues #4 and #5 was published entitled "Faculty still paid by drug firms." The article contains a personal reminder to me that the "faculty" know of the dubiousness of their deeds from long ago. More on that momentarily.

Posted on Fri, Dec. 24, 2010

Faculty still paid by drug firms

Medical-school policies often fail to keep doctors from lecturing on Big Pharma's dime.

By Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein

Officials at the University of Pennsylvania believed they had a strong tool to prevent pharmaceutical-company money from corrupting the medical faculty.

In 2006, they acted to keep drug marketers out of their hospital and clinics, to ensure that treatment decisions were made for the right reasons. In one of the country's first policies of its kind, Penn also told its physicians that they "should not participate in industry marketing activities."

Penn's chief medical officer, P.J. Brennan, said he thought the policy was clear: Company-paid lectures are forbidden. "It flies in the face of what a professional ought to be," he said.

[Perhaps the policy would have been clearer to the esteemed academic faculty if written in Latin, as in "Vexillum pensus lectures es inconcessus", or perhaps Greek "εταιρεία πληρωμένος διάλεξη είναι απαγορευμένος"? - ed.]

But an investigation by ProPublica found that 20 of Penn's doctors have delivered such lectures since 2009. Five, including one who left Penn last month, were paid more than $40,000.

$40,000 can buy a lot of opinions, or skew the opinions of otherwise scientific personnel. Those who deny this are either deluded or overly enamored by the hot sports car they plan to have in their garage...

What's the big deal with giving pharma-sponsored and paid "educational talks", anyway, when you can then more easily afford one of these?

The article continues:

[Penn] was not the only [school] caught off-guard. ProPublica checked on 12 medical schools and teaching hospitals and found that faculty at half also lectured for drug firms in the last two years, despite restrictions on such speeches. Among them, Stanford University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Colorado Denver have initiated reviews.

Conflict-of-interest policies have become more important as academic medical centers worry that promotional talks undermine the credibility not only of the physicians giving them, but also of the institutions they represent.

[Asking a physician about conflicts of interest who is recommending some relatively new therapy or device, or novel use of an existing treatment, should now be considered standard patient operating procedure - ed.]

Yet when it comes to enforcing the policies, schools have allowed permissive interpretations and relied on the honor system. [In other words, the academic old boy's club turns a blind eye to abuses - ed.] ProPublica's review shows that approach isn't working: Many doctors are in apparent violation, and ignorance or confusion about the rules is widespread.

As a result, some faculty stay on the pharmaceutical lecture circuit, where they can net tens of thousands of dollars in extra income.

I find this doubly troubling. When I was a pharma research lab middle manager, a careful analysis I'd conducted over several months with the key scientific stakeholders demonstrated a $4 million+ annual gap in funding for provision of drug scientists with the information assets and informatics tools they needed to optimally perform their work.

Yet, I was only able to secure about a third of that (much of which was later rescinded after several late-state drugs in develpoment were withdrawn) while massive amounts of money was spent on marketing activities. (Even worse, the decisions were made by non-science-grounded computer personnel, further insulting my intelligence...and insulting the pocketbooks of investors and stockholders.)

The article then notes something we've noted frequently at this blog:

Critics of the practice say delivering talks for drug companies is incompatible with the job of teaching future generations of physicians. That's because drug firms typically pick the topic of the lecture, train the speakers, and require them to use company-provided presentation slides.

"You're giving someone else's messages, someone else's talk, someone else's judgments," said Bernard Lo, a medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who chaired a national panel examining conflicts of interest in medicine.

Lo then delivers the coup de grâce in a single sentence:

"We don't allow our students to use someone else's work."

Indeed, my students are now required by our university to attest to the originality of every assignment of submission, with penalties up to and including failure of a course and/or expulsion. In the face of the plagiarism made possible by new information and communications technologies (e.g., the Web), this policy will become more common.

Yet, it seems that some esteemed academic faculty, due to desire for money, cannot "keep it in their pants" and practice the morals their organizations preach. (The oldest profession suffers a similar vice.)

Then there's this startling finding:

Reporters compared the names of faculty members at a dozen medical schools and teaching hospitals with ProPublica's Dollars for Docs database of payments to doctors publicly reported by seven drug companies. Lists of the physicians whose names matched were provided to the universities and hospitals for verification and comment.

... "For God's sake, if the media can look at these websites, why can't we?" said David Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University. "Why trust if you can verify?"

I would suggest the answer to that question has to do with will, as opposed to lacking a way.

Now the personal angle:

At Penn, the top paid speaker, according to Dollars for Docs, was Corey Langer, director of thoracic oncology at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center. He made nearly $70,000 speaking for Eli Lilly & Co. in 2009 and the first half of 2010.

Langer also received unknown amounts from other firms, such as Genentech Inc., OSI Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., according to his disclosure for a medical education program this month.

By e-mail, Langer said he was "now fully aware" of Penn's policy and was "taking measures to curtail speaking for pharmaceutical companies.

I find this very sad.

This is a former medical school classmate at Boston University School of Medicine, Class of '81; in fact for a year we stood at adjacent tables in Gross Anatomy dating back to 1977. I knew him to be a brilliant student, and in several interactions with him in the early 1990's when I worked at an adjacent hospital to his, felt he had become an excellent clinician.

Interestingly, there was, in fact, a significant brouhaha in the class over gifting by pharmaceutical companies offering stethoscopes, black bags, and other accouterments of practice ca. 1978 or 9 as clinical rotations began. Several in the class were actually militant about the class setting a "no gifts from pharma" policy due to its potential effects on medical judgment and practice, and I recall the vigorous debates in the BU lecture halls vividly. This was in the late 1970's, I note, not 2010.

That one of my former classmates claims to only now be "fully aware" of pharma-related anti-conflict of interest issues in 2010 (like many others as in the article appear to become - after they are caught red handed) is a sad reminder to me of the state of healthcare and the corrosive influence of money.

The phenomenon is not just at a few organizations. The article continues:

UC Denver's experience was mirrored at other schools where officials discovered their policies were not working as expected.

The University of Pittsburgh's 2008 policy bans paid speaking in many cases, said Barbara Barnes, an associate vice chancellor in charge of industry relationships. Yet ProPublica found 22 Pitt doctors in its database.

At Stanford University, ProPublica found that more than 12 of the school's doctors were paid speakers, in apparent violation of its 2009 policy. Two had earned six figures since last year.

Philip Pizzo, the dean of Stanford's medical school, sent an e-mail to all medical school staff last week calling the conduct "unacceptable." Some doctors' excuses, he wrote, were "difficult if not impossible to reconcile with our policy."

[I'll bet those "excuses" would have made superb case studies in logical fallacy as well - ed.]

At least some are willing to own up to their behavior, although probably under duress:

Some Stanford doctors said they were in the wrong.

Among them was Alan Yeung, vice chairman of Stanford's department of medicine and chief of cardiovascular medicine, who has been paid $53,000 by Lilly since 2009. In an e-mail, Yeung said he quit speaking for the company this fall.

"I take full responsibility for this error," he said. "Even though I felt that these activities are worthwhile educational endeavors, the perceived monetary conflict may be too great."

While this is stated with typical academic fabric softeners and odor removers ("perceived", "may be", etc.), it's a start.

Finally, ethical simplicity itself:

[Stanford Medical School dean] Pizzo compared some doctors' explanations to what a police officer might hear after catching a motorist running a late-night stop sign.

"You can give 1,000 reasons: 'There was nobody around. It's safe,' " he said. "The reality is, it's still a stop sign."

Perhaps universities need to develop a suitable "stop sign" for posting outside their faculty offices.

May I suggest the following version:

(click to enlarge)

-- SS