[Dr James] Stein, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, was a 29-year-old cardiology fellow in Chicago in 1994 when his faculty mentor asked him to fill in for him at a drug company-funded lecture to a large group of doctors.
It would be his first taste of life as a drug company speaker and consultant.
Stein got first-class airfare to Dallas. A limousine took him to a luxury hotel for the talk.
He walked off the stage, and a doctor from the conference handed him an envelope containing a $500 check.
'I got a pat on the back and he said, 'There's more where that came from, son.' I had no idea what that meant, but I went home and paid off part of my student loans,' Stein said in a presentation at UW this month.
Stein's first drug company talk led to more than a decade of work for drug companies before he gave it up for ethical reasons. Now he is speaking out.
Over the years, many of the big names in the drug industry would hire Stein to give speeches or serve as a consultant, eventually leading to fees of $2,000 to $3,000 per talk.
About a month after his first talk in 1994, Stein was asked by another drug company to give a lecture on cholesterol at a small hospital in Chicago, just as blockbuster statin drugs were coming on the market.
'I was really flattered because over and over again I was told that I was a future thought leader,' he said. 'I did my talk. I got a $750 honorarium and I was hooked.'
Stein said he now realizes that the speech at the hospital was just an audition.
'They wanted to know what I would say and how I would deliver,' he said. 'And I think they also wanted to know what I would say about their product.'
He joined speakers bureaus for several drug companies. It was a kind of badge of honor, he said. The more companies a doctor spoke for, the more highly he or she was regarded.
Stein, now 44, came to UW in 1996. Over the years, he would give talks and do other work for many of the top names in the pharmaceutical industry.
For instance, in 2005 Stein did work for six drug makers, according to a disclosure form filed with UW. That year, Pfizer paid him between $10,000 and $20,000 for four days of work as a speaker and advisory board member.
LipoScience, a firm that markets a cholesterol test, paid him $10,000 to $20,000 for four days of similar work.
Another firm, Schering-Plough, paid him about $12,000 for two days as a lecturer.
Although he said he had concerns about the propriety of his work, Stein said he was assured by his superiors there was nothing wrong with it as long as he did it on his own time. Indeed, they said it enhanced the reputation of the university.
And, he said, he considered himself an educator, not a salesman.
He said he tried to manage any conflicts of interest by disclosing who paid him, controlling the content of what he said and doing the work on personal time.
Things started to change rapidly beginning several years ago.
Drug companies began referring to the talks as promotional. They wanted him to use their slides; he refused. Then, medical journals and the lay press began printing articles questioning the ethics of the relationships.
A 2006 article in a Madison newspaper listed Stein as being among the UW doctors who reported the most money from the drug industry. Stein said he was embarrassed.
But, he said, he continued to try to manage his relationships with drug companies. He sent letters to patients disclosing his ties to industry. As of December 2006, he donated all the money from his talks to charity.
Why didn't he just stop doing the work?
He said he believed he could save more lives lecturing than by working in the emergency room. Stein said he saw no harm in being paid. But he admitted that giving the talks also made him feel important.
At the same time, new scientific articles suggested that it is impossible for doctors to be unbiased when they receive gifts or payments from drug companies.
'I have learned that human beings, physicians included, are incapable of recognizing bias in themselves, and even when you try not to be biased it is impossible to avoid it, especially when money is involved,' he said.
He said he came to realize that drug and medical device firms were no longer trustworthy partners in medical education.
He also said it has become obvious that patients have the least power and drug companies have the most power.
'I was wrong,' he said.
Stein said he stands by what he taught.
But, he added, 'I was naïve to think I was not influenced by the money and power of the drug and device companies.'
As of last December, he said, he stopped all drug company speaking and consulting other than bona fide research.
It is nice that a few commercially paid "key opinion leaders" have realized what they were really doing. Maybe, Dr Stein will follow in the footsteps of Dr Daniel Carlat, and try to atone for his previous role in drug marketing disguised as education. (See Dr Carlat's excellent blog here, and his now classic article, "Dr Drug Rep.")
This compelling narrative reinforces some points about relationships among physicians and health care corporations.
Health care corporations do not pay for nothing, and are not charitable organizations. If a company pays a physician to give talks, it is almost certainly because those talks will help market company products or services.
Pharmaceutical and device companies have argued that they only pay the best and the brightest physicians as speakers and consultants. But this story (and others, e.g. here) suggest that they recruit young physicians who seem to be malleable and likely to go along with the company line, and groom them to do marketing in the guise of education.
The company's money thus helps mold "key opinion leaders." Worse, at many medical schools, being a commercially supported speaker or consult was a badge of honor. Thus, faculty chosen by commercial firms as most tractable and sympathetic to the companies' viewpoints, came to be regarded as the best and the brightest.
Why getting money from commercial firms was regarded as indicative of honor and intelligence, rather than gullibility, naivete, or worse, is not clear. I wonder whether it correlated with increasing alignment of the leadership of medical schools with commercial interests, and domination of the very top leadership, that is, the universities' board of directors, by those formerly regarded as Masters of the Universe (but now often seen as stupid, arrogant, greedy, or even corrupt. See posts about how the boards of Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yeshiva were disproportionately populated by leaders of [faux] finance).
At any rate, this is truly a cautionary tale of seduction of academia into hucksterism.
Hat tip to Margaret Soltan at University Diaries.
ADDENDUM (30 April, 2009) - See also the comments by Dr Daniel Carlat on the Carlat Psychiatry Blog.