Now the New York Times has reported on a dispute between a well-paid consultant and an artificial joint manufacturer that provides new insights into these financial relationships. To summarize,
IT was a long, fruitful medical marriage that is fast becoming an angry public divorce, one that offers a rare look at a clash between a top-shelf consultant and his corporate patron over patient safety.
For years, Dr. Richard A. Berger designed surgical tools and artificial joints for Zimmer Holdings, trained hundreds of doctors to use its products and talked it up wherever he went. In return, Zimmer, an orthopedic implant maker, helped enrich Dr. Berger, portraying him as a master surgeon and paying him more than $8 million over a decade.
Those days are gone. Dr. Berger started complaining to Zimmer a while back that one of its artificial-knee models was failing prematurely, and he went public recently with a study that he says proves it. Zimmer told him that the problem was not the artificial knee, but his technique, and pointed to data overseas indicating that the knee was safe.
Last year, Zimmer did not give Dr. Berger a new contract. The company says it routinely rotates consultants.
'I trained hundreds of doctors for them and made them tens of millions,' Dr. Berger said in interview here, in which he also lambasted Zimmer executives as dissembling, out-of-touch bureaucrats. 'So was this just a coincidence? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t.'
In more detail, here is how Dr Berger's relationship with Zimmer began:
The surgeon, a tall, balding man with a boyish manner, was finishing his fellowship at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago at the time, one of the country’s top centers for joint replacement. The center has had long ties to Zimmer, whose headquarters is about two hours away, in Warsaw, Ind., and the young surgeon quickly came to the company’s attention.
'Rich has a very clever set of hands, and because of that he is enabled with the ability to innovate surgical techniques,' said Roy Crowninshield, who was Zimmer’s chief scientific officer.
Dr. Berger’s skills matched Zimmer’s marketing strategy. To distinguish itself from competitors, the device maker had started promoting minimally invasive surgery, a technique that uses smaller incisions than traditional surgery. Zimmer trained doctors in the procedure, using its device.
Soon, Dr. Berger, who was then pioneering a type of small-incision surgery that allowed patients to leave the hospital on the day of surgery, became a linchpin of Zimmer’s efforts. In 2002, he was prominently featured in a press release about Zimmer’s plans to build a training facility for minimally invasive surgery.
'We are clearly excited about Dr. Berger’s data,' J. Raymond Elliott, the company’s chairman and chief executive at the time, stated in the release.
Over the next few years, the physician estimates, he helped train hundreds of surgeons on Zimmer’s behalf.
And in more detail, here is how things went wrong:
As he tells it, his relationship with Zimmer frayed over a version of a widely used Zimmer knee, known as the NexGen. The model at issue, called the NexGen CR-Flex, is designed to provide a greater range of motion than the standard NexGen.
Most surgeons implant an artificial knee using a cement-like adhesive to bond the thigh bone to the portion of the device that bends. But some specialists, like Dr. Berger, try to avoid adhesives because the cement can break down and cause device failure. So Zimmer also sells an uncemented version of the CR-Flex that relies instead on the bone naturally fusing with the implant.
Dr. Berger says that he gave the device, which is supposed to last about 15 years, to about 125 patients in 2005, the first full year he used it. But by early 2006, some X-rays showed lines where the implant met the thigh bone, an indication that the device was loose and had not fused completely. Patients could walk, but they were reporting pain, apparently a result of the loose joint.
He says he soon brought the problem to the attention of Zimmer officials, including the company’s new top scientist, Cheryl R. Blanchard. Zimmer executives pointed to the success of the NexGen, but the company did not have separate test data on the uncemented flexible model because the F.D.A. had not required the company to study it in patients before selling it.
Later, as more patients complained about the device and Dr. Berger had to replace some of them, he spoke to Ms. Blanchard again, he said. This time, he said, she and other Zimmer officials suggested that his technique was the problem because no other surgeon had complained.
'Suddenly, I went from someone who was their master teacher to someone who didn’t know what he was doing,' he said.
BY 2007, Dr. Berger, although still a Zimmer consultant, had stopped using the device and had learned, he said, that several other surgeons had also experienced problems with it. But unlike Dr. Dorr, the physician who sent out the alert about Zimmer, Dr. Berger said he initially had hoped to avoid a public showdown with the company. So he followed a more traditional route by performing a study with another Rush surgeon, Dr. Craig J. Della Valle, who was also having to replace the Zimmer knee.
Dr. Berger and Dr. Della Valle first presented their study at a medical meeting last fall and again this year at a national meeting of the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons. They found that the uncemented Zimmer knee failed early in about 9 percent of some 100 patients studied. Also, the knee exhibited signs of looseness in about half of all patients and has since been replaced in some of them, Dr. Berger said.
But Zimmer was unswayed. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Zimmer made note of the study but also pointed to the knee’s very positive results in a large database of orthopedic patients in Australia. Officials there confirmed the low failure rate. The company also said that the cement-free CR Flex accounted for only a small fraction — about 2 percent — of its overall knee sales.
The most striking lesson of this case is that Dr Berger was only valued as a consultant as long as his work completely followed the marketing party line. As soon as he questioned the company's product, or the executives who were promoting it, he became "someone who didn't know what he was doing." Of course, a truly valued consultant should be respected, if not sought for honest advice, whether or not it fit preconceived notions or marketing strategies. Thus, how Dr Berger was finally treated suggested he really was hired to market product. "Consultant" was just a pretty title..
We (and many others) have discussed (e.g., here) how pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device companies cultivate "key opinion leaders" who really are nothing more than salespeople with fancy academic titles or well-known practices. The case of Dr Berger suggests that apparently distinguished academics and practitioners hired as "consultants" by such companies ought to be regarded as salespeople until proven otherwise. Physicians who are wooed by company marketers to take on such consulting roles, often with praise for their ability to "innovate," "excite," or become a "master teacher," may want to consider whether those flattering them merely want to hire another high-profile part-time salesperson. They may further may want to think about how they would look should this relationship be revealed for what it really is. If something goes wrong, they should think about what it would be like to deal with "dissembling, out-of-touch bureaucrats." Sometimes there is a price to pay for taking all that money.
I hope that Dr Berger will consider donating the $8 million he made to the cause of more honest teaching and research about orthopedic devices.
Meanwhile, patients and physicians should be extremely skeptical about the pronouncements of paid consultants and key opinion leaders who work for corporations marketing health care goods and services. We all should demand at least that those paid by such vested interests reveal such financial arrangements in detail if they expect us to listen to their spiels, take their advice, and particularly be subject to their decisions.