Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Smoke Detector" - Medical Center Leader (and Former Biotech CEO) Outed as Tobacco Investor

Last year we posted about the seemingly incongruous choice of a wealthy biotechnology executive with little academic or practice experience to run the prestigious University of California - San Francisco, a health oriented university housing a respected medical school.  We wondered whether her corporate background would make it difficult to uphold the university's academic and patient care missions.

In line with our concerns, Duff Wilson, writing in the New York Times, reported:
When Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann was named chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, last summer, she took over a medical institution focused on world health generally and tobacco control in particular.

But she forgot one thing in adjusting to her new role: personal stock holdings listed last year in the range of $100,000 to $1 million in Altria, owner of Philip Morris USA, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes. Altria has been blamed for thousands of deaths and repeatedly criticized by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the university.

Last week, a day after The New York Times inquired about the Altria stock, Dr. Desmond-Hellmann and her husband, also a doctor, ordered it to be immediately sold and imposed 'values screening' on their personal investments.

Experts on tobacco control were aghast:
Dr. Stanton A. Glantz, director of the university’s tobacco control center, said he was unaware of Dr. Desmond-Hellmann’s Altria stock, which was contained in a university filing but not made public until now, after a public records request by a former student who passed it on to The Times.

“I do find that kind of shocking, but at least she got rid of it,” Dr. Glantz said on Monday, adding that Dr. Desmond-Hellmann had been very supportive of the center.

Dr. Kenneth E. Warner, dean of the school of public health at the University of Michigan and a national antitobacco leader, said, “I find it frankly a bit appalling that the chancellor of a major medical center would have held such stock. It strikes me as unthinking, frankly.”

We should give Dr Desmond-Hellmann credit for selling her Altria stock as soon as its connotations were made plain to her. (And at least she was not on the board of a tobacco company, to our knowledge, as was one former president of a university and large health sciences center.)

However, this little incident underlines the clash between the culture that dominates large health care corporations and the mission of medical schools and academic medical centers. In the last 30 years, academic medicine has rushed to embrace the reigning corporate culture, not to mention corporate money. I submit that this embrace has been at the peril of the fundamental academic and patient care missions.

Academic medical leaders need to promote better patient care, and honest, responsible teaching and research. To do so, they may have to give up some of the glitz, glamor, and cash proffered by industry. If they do not make this sacrifice, they risk losing the trust of an increasingly skeptical, if not cynical public.


Anonymous said...

Duke has made into the news with the June 24, WSJ article Letters Oppose Approval of Generic Heparin. Sanofi-Aventis has been mustering support to stop approval of a generic heparin.

This support is being spear headed by groups and individuals who receive funding from the drug company. A number of doctors expressed their deep professional concern that they only want what s best for the patients, while receiving funding from Sanofi-Aventis

“Victor Tapson, a professor at Duke University Medical Center who consults for Sanofi and who urged the FDA to demand adequate clinical testing, said,” These drugs are too important in preventing thrombosis [drug clots],” he said. Approving enoxaparin without such studies would increase the risk to patients, Dr. Tapson added.”

Laurence Wellikson of The Society of Hospital Medicine felt it was not necessary to reveal any conflicts as did Ilene Sussman, executive director of the North American Thrombosis Forum, since their only concerns are that of patients.

Ahhh, of we all were to be so lucky to have doctors receiving money from drug companies so concerned about our health. (Sarcasm) Once again we have a major university, along with a group of medical societies, with a financial conflict regarding recommendations.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Never trust a grammar checker: The first sentence should read Duke has made it into …

The last paragraph should start Ahhh, if …

The WSJ quote “drug clots” is correct, although I would assume they mean blood clots.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Wonder if Bob Wachter will cover this on his Wachter's World Blog?

Interestingly, she replaced the former commissioner of the FDA who got heat for speaking his mind.