STOSSEL and ACRE – WHERE’S the BEEF?
Thomas Stossel from Harvard is at it again. As Daniel Carlat has humorously described, Stossel is planning the inaugural meeting next week of a group to counter those he calls pharmascolds. The group is named ACRE – Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators. Here is its website: http://www.acreonline.org/ For months, Stossel has been warning of the dire negative consequences that will result from tightened conflict of interest policies, but he has not presented any persuasive examples of damage to “productive relationships between industry and physicians involved in clinical research and educational outreach.” At the same time, Dr. Stossel has conveniently overlooked the shenanigans of the bad actors whom Senator Grassley exposed. Dr. Stossel is a blowhard, as I have described here before.
But wait! ACRE has found something! A News item in the July 2009 issue of Nature Medicine (“Conflict of interest rules seen by some as too stringent”) quoted one of the participants in the upcoming ACRE conference. Avi Markowitz, chief of oncology at UT Medical Branch, Galveston, came up with this example: Patients taking a Sanofi Aventis chemotherapy product may experience peripheral neuropathy, which can cause unpleasant sensations in the hands and feet. ‘Sanofi Aventis had been providing Markowitz and his UTMB colleagues with free blankets and gloves for those patients. Last fall, however, the university adopted stricter rules banning industry freebies. Now, Markowitz can’t even accept the unbranded blankets and gloves that Sanofi Aventis has offered to provide.’ Reading between the lines, it is a good bet that these items originally were branded.
Whatever. And never mind that the patients receiving chemotherapy at UTMB are doubtless billed a hefty facility fee that must include comfort items like blankets and gloves. Since when does a chief of oncology need to beg for these basic patient care provisions from drug companies?
Is this all that ACRE can come up with? The ACRE homepage warned sternly of “restrictive conflict of interest policies that often sever productive relationships between industry and physicians involved in clinical research and educational outreach.” Does Thomas Stossel’s whining and catastrophizing through ACRE come down to piffling items like blankets and gloves for chemotherapy patients? That’s it? Where’s the beef?
At least ACRE has the good sense not to include on its program the smooth operators whom Senator Grassley outed – like Nemeroff at Emory, Schatzberg at Stanford, Kuklo at Walter Reed, Keller at Brown, Biederman at Harvard. Not even Stossel has been brazen enough to try to defend them.
The Nature Medicine News item does close on a helpful note: 'Stossel would like to see abuses involving financial conflicts of interest treated more like cases of scientific misconduct. Rather than forcing everyone to abide by prohibitive rules, he says administrators should focus on weeding out those who misbehave.' I say Amen to that, even if it is a day late and a dollar short.
We have arrived at our present state of discomfiture because the leaders of academic institutions and professional societies looked the other way for too long. They failed to do their job of reining in the ethical outliers. Grassley had to do it for them. As a result, the rest of us will be burdened with new regulations for years to come. Those who did speak up years ago were ignored or demonized. As the saying goes, every group gets the leadership it deserves. Those in academic medicine had better not count on Stossel and ACRE to lead them out of the wilderness.