Meanwhile, cases of individual physicians and academics whose lucrative relationships with industry seem to generate huge conflicts of interest continue to surface. The latest example ferreted out by investigators working for US Senator Charles Grassley (R - Iowa) is that of Dr David Polly. (Recall that Dr Polly was one of the strongest defenders of Dr Thomas Kuklo, who was accused of falsifying clinical research results in a way that seemed to favor the product of his own corporate benefactor [see post here].)
The main points were reported by David Armstrong and Thomas M Burton in the Wall Street Journal,
In May 2006, University of Minnesota spine surgeon David Polly urged a Senate committee to fund research into the severe arm, leg and spine injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere.
Dr. Polly told the committee he was testifying on behalf of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and referenced his prior work caring for soldiers as a surgeon at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
What Dr. Polly didn't disclose during his testimony was that his trip to Washington was paid for by Medtronic Inc., the big medical-device maker whose bone growth product, called Infuse, has been used to treat soldiers, according to company records.
Dr. Polly and colleagues in Minnesota subsequently received a $466,644 Department of Defense grant for a two-year study beginning in February 2007 to evaluate Infuse in cases where an injury is also infected, according to the university.
Dr. Polly was paid $1.14 million by Medtronic for consulting services from 2004 to 2007.
Details of Dr. Polly's consultant billing were provided by Medtronic to Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has been scrutinizing the relationship between academics and industry.
Although there have now been many reported cases of medical academics who collected large payments from health care corporations, the services they provided in exchange for the money have not always been very clear. Defenders of financial relationships among physicians and medical academics and industry have argued that most payments were for valuable research, education, or health care activities. However, Senator Grassley's office provided the details of Dr Polly's invoices, and several of the news articles so far described what he did for the money. Per the Wall Street Journal article,
In total, Dr. Polly billed Medtronic for more than $50,000 in lobbying-related costs. He made trips to Washington in 2005 and 2006 and called on several members of Congress, according to the records.
According to billing records, Dr. Polly's billing rate was $4,750 for an eight-hour day in 2007, and he billed as many as 13,000 minutes a quarter -- or 216 hours over three months. In some months, he conducted at least some Medtronic business on nearly every day.
His consulting log indicates that on one occasion he spent one minute to wake up a Medtronic executive, although he listed 'no charge' for that service. He did bill Medtronic for the 30 minutes he spent in the car with that executive after waking him up.
An accompanying post on the Wall Street Journal Health Blog provided more information:
Did you ever wonder what doctors do to earn big consulting contracts from medical device companies and pharmaceutical concerns?
Records released by Medtronic to Sen. Charles Grassley, a longtime critic of the ties between academics and and health-care companies, provide a rare and detailed glimpse into the daily billings of a consultant — in this case, spine surgeon David Polly of the University of Minnesota.
Polly collected more than $1 million in four years of work for Medtronic, according to the records, which you can take a look at here.
The services he provided were many, but among them, Polly was paid to write articles for medical journals; write a chapter in a book and a book outline; recruit patients for publicity efforts; attend Medtronic national sales meetings; travel to conferences in Japan, Paris and elsewhere; lead training and educational sessions for physicians; and lobby Congress.
Polly also billed for at least two phone calls with Medtronic CEO William Hawkins as well as charging the company $2,000 when Mr. Hawkins visited an operating room. In October, 2003, he billed the company $12,000 for attending a medical meeting of the North American Spine Society, at $4,000 a day.
There are also scores of entries for work billed in five-minute increments, usually to send email or return phone calls. The bill for each five-minute charge? $49.48 a pop.
So did the $1.2 million Medtronic spent on Dr Polly's services inspire any "innovation?" Did it lead to any scientific progress or improved health care? I am not sure.
It is clear, however, that a good chunk of this money went to support marketing, advocacy, and lobbying. The items in bold italics above were clearly in support of marketing, advocacy and lobbying, not science, medical education, or patient care. (To give Dr Polly the benefit of a doubt, some other items listed above could have been related to research, education, or patient care, although this is not indisputable.)
So the case of Dr Polly corroborates my deep skepticism of the financial relationships among physicians and medical academics on one hand, and corporations that sell health care goods and services on the other. We "pharmascolds," - a preferable term might be health care skeptics - suspect that many of these relationships are really about stealth marketing and advocacy. The companies often pay to market their products and services, or advocate positions to the companies' advantage, but prefer that their salespeople and advocates are cloaked in academic guises, and wreathed in the rarefied aura of respected academic institutions. (Note that some of us are just as skeptical about relationships among academic institutions and other health care not-for-profit organizations on one hand, and such corporations on the other, for analogous reasons.)
While the leadership of our formerly distinguished medical academic institutions remains infiltrated, if not dominated by people earning many thousands of dollars from health care corporations, I must remain skeptical about how much of these institutions supposedly academic output is actually stealth marketing and stealth health policy advocacy.
At the very least, medical academics, medical academic institutions, and other health care not-for-profits or NGOs should reveal in detail what payments they get from companies selling health care products or services, and how these payments could relate to the companies' marketing or lobbying efforts. In the US, some such disclosure would be mandated by the proposed "Sunshine" legislation now being considered by the US Congress. (By the way, note that this problem is hardly confined to the US, and needs global, not just American attention.)
However, physicians (at least physicians in full-time private practice, academic positions, and employed by mission-oriented not for profit organizations) should go further, and consider whether receiving industry money is worth the ongoing damage it does to our professionalism and our professional reputations. Medical schools, universities, health care foundations, disease advocacy groups, and other health care not-for-profits and NGOs should also go further, and consider whether receiving industry money is worth the ongoing damage it does to their missions, and their institutional reputations.
See also comments by Prof Margaret Soltan on the University Diaries blog.