Monday, July 26, 2010

Stifling Whistle-Blowers: Old and New Approaches

We have frequently discussed the anechoic effect, how it is just not done to discuss certain topics, particularly those related to the adverse effects of bad (ill-informed, incompetent, self-interested, conflicted, or corrupt) leadership and bad (opaque, unaccountable, mission-hostile, unethical) governance of health care organizations.  We have discussed many possible causes of the anechoic effect, but one particularly obvious cause is the silencing of dissenters and whistle-blowers.

Three recent stories illustrate old and new tactics to reinforce the anechoic effect.

A Classic Case - ValleyCare Medical System Nurse Fired

From the San Francisco Chronicle,
An Alameda County jury awarded more than $344,000 in damages this week against ValleyCare Medical System for refusing to rehire a Castro Valley operating nurse who claimed the hospital was retaliating against her for complaints she made about patient safety issues, including concerns about surgical equipment left inside patients.

Kristeen Klaas, a 15-year veteran at ValleyCare and a registered nurse for more than 30 years, sued the hospital system, which has services in Pleasanton and Livermore, after she quit in distress in May 2008 and hospital managers failed to respond to her request to be rehired days later.

The 54-year-old Klaas, who now works at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and San Leandro Hospital, had brought numerous safety complaints about the Pleasanton hospital to the attention of ValleyCare's management over the two years prior to her resignation.

Klaas complained about a fellow nurse who brought a dog into the operating team's break room and jumped rope with an electrical cord in the operating room, as well as a surgical technician who brought a rifle into the operating room office to sell. She also complained that a tip of a surgical instrument went missing during a surgery and was never found, and that an instrument was left in a patient because the hospital did not have a formal policy of counting instruments after surgery.

She also accused a supervisor of forging her signature on a performance evaluation after she refused to sign an evaluation that was backdated to comply with state regulations.

Here is the tactic allegedly used to silence the whistle-blowing nurse:
On her last day on the job, Klaas got permission from her supervising nurse to leave work because she was in distress after a colleague, the subject of three of her complaints, screamed at her.

'She realized, for the patient's safety, she couldn't continue to go forward that day in the operating room because she was so upset,' he said.

But then a supervisor called her at home and accused her of leaving without permission, prompting Klaas to resign, he said.

This is the classic, rather blunt way to do it: just make the would-be truth-teller's job experience so miserable that she quits.

Now we will present two examples of a more subtle approach, one directly from health care, one at least from a sphere with major health care implications.

A New Approach: A Contract Preventing Communication "Inimical" to a Pharmaceutical Company's Business

This case was documented by a personal narrative by Marc Lipsitch, a Professor of Epidemiology and the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education,
I received a request from a large pharmaceutical company to assist in the design of a clinical trial, and the proposed terms seemed to require that I sign away my right to criticize the product. One provision would prohibit me from entering into 'any agreement or relationship to render services as ... adviser or consultant to, any other individual, firm, or corporation that would be inimical to or in conflict with' the aspects of the company's business covered by the agreement. Another would forbid me to engage, in any capacity, directly or indirectly, in "any business," with or without compensation, relating to the class of products under discussion—not just for the term of the contract, but for the year after as well. Those provisions could restrain me from providing candid advice to a regulator, a government official, or the editor of a peer-reviewed journal about the class of products on which I was consulting, even if the advice were based on publicly available information. I objected to those terms, as did a colleague who was offered the same arrangement.

Prof Lipsitch also noted that government research funding agencies and universities may not provide any protections to their faculty against such agreements. He also noted that the contract he was asked to sign was not one of a kind:
Discussions with my colleagues suggest that the problem is not limited to one pharmaceutical company ....

We and many others have frequently discussed the conflicts of interest that may be generated by physicians or health care academics having financial relationships with industry. The Institute of Medicine's definition of conflict of interest (in a health care context) found in its report, Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice, is:
Conflicts of interest are defined as circumstances that create a risk that professional judgments or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest. Primary interests include promoting and protecting the integrity of research, the quality of medical education, and the welfare of patients. Secondary interests include not only financial interests....

Thus the concern is that a faculty member,for example, who is paid to consult for a drug company might tend to favor the company, its products, or policies to its advantage in his or her clinical teaching, scholarly talks and writing, or public policy opinions. That might happen even if the consulting work is technical or scientific and not directly related to the particular topic about which communication might be influenced.

However, the situation described by Prof Lipsitch is much worse. Were he to have signed the contract, he would have been constrained by this legal agreement from writing or saying anything "inimical to or in conflict with" the company's business.

Last week, a similar, but more wide-spread example surfaced (pardon the pun) in a domain that is at least related to health care.

Another Version of the New Approach: the BP Consulting Contracts Making Any Communication Between the Company and the Consultant Confidential

Originally reported by the BBC,
The head of the American Association of Professors has accused BP of trying to 'buy' the best scientists and academics to help its defence against litigation after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

'This is really one huge corporation trying to buy faculty silence in a comprehensive way,' said Cary Nelson.

The BBC has obtained a copy of a contract offered to scientists by BP. It says that scientists cannot publish the research they do for BP or speak about the data for at least three years, or until the government gives the final approval to the company's restoration plan for the whole of the Gulf.

It also states scientists may perform research for other agencies as long as it does not conflict with the work they are doing for BP.

And it adds that scientists must take instructions from lawyers offering the contracts and other in-house counsel at BP.

Here are some examples of the wording of the contract as obtained by the BBC about confidentiality.
Confidentiality. All communications (including non-public information disclosed in such communications) between you (and your agents), BP Attorneys and/or other BP representatives in the course of your performance of the BP NRDA Services are deemed to be incidental to the rendering of legal services and are to be privileged and confidential. You shall maintain a strict confidentiality of such non-public communications and information unless or until a person from whom you are authorized to take instructions informs you in writing that this restriction is no longer applicable to any particular non-public communications and information. In the event you are required to disclose such privileged and confidential non-public communication and information by an order entered by a court or by similar judicial process, or by a judicial or administrative subpoena, you shall notify a person from whom you are authorized to take instructions as soon as practicable, and you are required to cooperate with BP if BP decides to seek relief from such required disclosure, including commencement of a legal or administrative proceeding to prevent or limit disclosure of such privileged or confidential information.
Here is the description of those from whom the signer of the contract must take orders.
Instructions. You agree to take your instructions only from me, from other lawyers in my firm, from Brian Israel or other lawyers in the Arnold & Porter law firm, and from Donna Ward or other in-house counsel at BP (collectively 'BP Attorneys').

Note that the contract defines privileged, confidential information as any communication between BP and its representatives and the contract signer. Thus, to make something confidential, all BP would have to do is mention it in a communication. It appears that this would allow BP to render off-limits any topic it chose. Also, since by the same mechanism, it appears that the contract itself, once signed, would also become privileged and confidential.


I submit that ideally medicine and health care ought to be a very transparent calling.  Physicians are obliged to keep confidential the information disclosed to them by patients, enabling the patients to trust physicians sufficiently to provide them the accurate information needed for optimal care.  However, it is hard to think of much other information or communication in health care that ought to be kept secret, (other than the processes used by commercial firms to manufacture drugs or devices.) 

Yet as health care becomes more of a business and less of a calling, businesspeople's proclivity to keep as much as possible secret to avoid giving any advantage to a competitor has become more influential.  Furthermore, those leading big organizations have realized that it is easier to maintain their power if they can keep their mistakes, if not misconduct secret.  So businesspeople's proclivity to mount overwhelming legal defenses of their interests may lead to persuading or fooling people who might be inclined to delve into such mistakes and misconduct to sign contracts to keep them silent through confidentiality clauses, requirements to protect privileged or proprietary information, non-disparagement clauses and the like.  The result will be better coddled self-interests, but more opacity that is inimical to good patient care, teaching, research, and public policy discussion.

To truly reform health care, we need more transparency.  To produce more transparency, we need constraints on contracts that inhibit needed clinical, teaching, research and public policy communication.

Meanwhile, as my father, who was an attorney, done told me: "don't sign a contract you don't understand, and don't sign a contract giving away any right you need to keep." 


MedInformaticsMD said...

The "make them miserable" approach is known legally as "constructive discharge."

-- SS

Anonymous said...

Disclosure seems to be a stumbling block for many in medicine. A great deal of the recent Mercy Medical v. Aultman Hospital case rested on a lack of disclosure of payments to insurance brokers by Aultman. These payments resulted in Aultman becoming the only “in” plan hospital.

Incidental to the trial was the disclosure that at least one large (25 doctor) medical practice was being paid $25,000 for exclusive referrals.

The Hooked on Ethics blog by Dr. Brody ( discloses the payments made to Pittsburg doctors for “educational” presentations. One doctor denied any influence, even though he was paid $89K for his services. Another doctor was equally adamant about being completely without a conflict at the $75K level.

Various local newspaper articles have covered the purchase of medical practice by hospitals. One has to wonder if this information is disclosed to the patients when they are referred for test or procedures, to the owning hospital.

The reality is if conflicts are not disclosed patients cannot make an informed decision. We have already seen how the ownership of imaging equipment or labs results in more imaging studies and labs.

The failure to disclose, and denial on the part of doctors, to disclose these conflicts not only drive up medical cost but demean their position in society. Simply not talking about it will not change the situation and when it is disclosed there is a conflict the repercussions may be resolved, but the loss of faith is forever.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...


The $25,000 being paid to the medical practice is per doctor.

Steve Lucas