Thursday, November 18, 2010

Who You Gonna Call? - How Should a Young Academic Respond to a Proffered Conflict of Interest?

To prepare a workshop on conflicts of interest in health care, I wrote a case of a faculty member offered a proposition that might provide a conflict of interest:
Consider a health care researcher called by a commercial health care corporation's marketing department. The department representative proposes paying the researcher as a consultant to write a scholarly article on a specific policy topic of interest to the company. The implication is that the article should be favorable to the interests of the corporation in this arena. The corporation would be delighted to give the researcher editorial and staff assistance in writing the article and getting it published.

Who you gonna call?

The researcher is concerned that getting this consultancy might be a conflict of interest. What organization (e.g., appropriate professional society, unit within his or her academic institution, other academic unit, independent not-for-profit organization or NGO, or government agency) should the researcher contact for support and help? Please give at least one specific example, (preferably including a URL), with a brief justification of why that organization might be helpful.

I sent the case to a few hundred people on our combined mailing list, to see how they might answer.  Responses came from medical academics, with a sprinkling of practitioners, a journalist, and a well-informed lay-person.

Sources of Information: Is It a Conflict of Interest?

Nearly everyone thought it would be unethical for a young academic to be paid as a consultant to write a health policy review policy by a company with a vested interest in the subject, and with editorial and staff support coming from the company.

I implied (but did not make clear) that the faculty member felt uncomfortable with the situation, was looking either for advice and information, or actual support not to accept a conflict of interest that he or she might have felt pressured to take on.

People suggested some sources of information. Most appeared to be useful, but most also were specialized (by clinical specialty, directed at journal editors, directed only at conflicts related to pharmaceuticals, etc)  Those particularly worthy of mention include:
- The Prescription Project's site on medical school conflict of interest policies
- The World Association of Medical Editor's (WAME) site on conflict of interest in scholarly publication
- The general resource site
My personal preference for a single source of general information on COIs is the 2009 US Institute of Medicine report on same.  (I will add all these links to our side-bar, and note that there are some other relevant links there.)

The IOM definition of conflict of interest 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 interest include promoting and protecting the integrity of research, the quality of medical education, and the welfare of patients.
So the offer in the above case clearly seemed to present a conflict. The situation presented in my case seemed to present the potential to violate the report's recommendations 5.1 that bans scientific publications "that are controlled by industry," or that "contain substantial portions written by someone who is not identified as an author...."

Note, however, that even the IOM report seems not to question the idea that "collaborations between physicians or medical researchers and pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotechnology companies can benefit society — most notably by promoting the discovery and development of new medications and medical devices that improve individual and public health."  It has never been clear to me that collaboration requires payment by one party to the other, or that academic medical institutions ought to be developing drugs and devices (as opposed to discovering knowledge that commercial firms might later use to do so.) Furthermore, the IOM report, while it is moderately tough and comprehensive, did not recommend that detailed public disclosure of all relevant conflicts by all parties to them, or an outright ban on all of the sorts of conflicts that many might think are objectionable.

Support to Resist the Proffered Conflict

Suggested sources of help resisting pressure to assume an unwanted conflict of interest included local sources: mentors, grants and contracts offices, local conflict of interest/ ethics committees, compliance departments, and research officers. Some people thought their local versions of the above might be helpful. No person seemed sure that any of these options would clearly lead to support if the academic was being pressured by his or her academic superiors.

However, I have big concerns about the availability of even these sorts of local support.  We know COIs are very prevalent among individual academics.  About 60% of all academics, and of department chairs have important conflicts according to two articles by Campbell et al.(1-2)  So it might be hard for the young academic to find a mentor or university officer who was not already conflicted.

We also know that medical schools and academic medical centers see commercializing their discoveries as taking precedence over their traditional mission of seeking and disseminating knowledge, and providing and improving patient care and public health.  For example, in 2000, a Vice President of the American Association of Medical Colleges(3) wrote that research universities must respond to "societal demands that they become engines of economic development…."[caps added for emphasis] Furthermore,
Academic medicine… finds itself struggling to create a precarious equipoise between the world and values of commerce and those of traditional public service….
In our capitalistic economy the pathway by which research invention becomes beneficial application is often totally dependent on venture capital, the availability of which commonly demands the active participation of academic inventors in the commercial venture; put simply, no participation, no money. It is this demand … that has driven the dramatic increase in medical faculty entrepreneurship.

I have seen university conflict of interest policies that include such verbiage in their introductions. The impression is that most academic medical institutions now think that is their mission, maybe their overriding mission, to develop and commercialize drugs and devices.

So it might also be hard for the young academic to find a local academic unit that is not affected by institutional conflicts of interest. Indeed, none of the people on our list was sure that their institutions had local authorities or units that could help the young academic in the case above avoid the proffered conflict of interest.

A few people suggested external sources of support: e.g., a small medical society, an association of journal editors, a bioethics center. But they too were ambivalent about how helpful they might be. The small medical society would only be helpful for its few members, and the person who mentioned it doubted it could provide more help that citing its own COI policy. The journal editors and their organizations might only be helpful about how the proffered conflict might affect the ability of the faculty member to get the resulting study published. The bioethics center appeared to have heavy institutional conflicts of interest of its own. No one could suggest an independent organization likely to provide effective support to resist COIs to a wide spectrum of academics (or other health care professionals, etc)


So this exercise did reinforce one of the assumptions I made when writing the case. Young academics at most US (at least) institutions may have little local support for resisting the extant pressure to become conflicted. There are NO generally useful and effective external sources of such support.

I would point out that with all its limitations, the IOM report still called on academic institutions to develop clear guidelines for COIs (3.1, 3.2); ban people with COIs from research on humans (that is, from all clinical research) (4.1); develop educational programs on COIs (5.2); participate in developing continuing medical education that is free of industry influence (5.3); set up a committee on COIs at the board of trustees level (8.1). It also called on the US government to promote research about COIs (9.2).

As far as I can tell, that was all pretty much wishful thinking. Despite the prestige of the IOM, almost none of these recommendations have been implemented. (I have heard so far of one university that seems to have implemented watered down versions of some of the IOM recommendations in their own policy. I would love to be told there are more extensive implementations of these recommendations. If there are, please show me the specifics.)

Furthermore, there seems to be no effective support for the reduction of COIs from accrediting organizations, professional societies, or foundations that fund health care initiatives. (Again, I would love to be told I am wrong, but if I am, show me the specifics.)  Of course, it appears that most professional societies get extensive support from commercial sources, particularly drug, device, and biotechnology companies, and their leadership often have their own financial relationships with for-profit health care corporations.  Foundations that support health care and medicine may have leaders with similar relationships, and may have endowments disproportionately invested in health care corporations.   

Given the pervasive nature of personal and institutional COIs throughout health care, which we have documented on Health Care Renewal , I was saddened, but not surprised by the responses to my query. So many people and so many institutions are making so much money from their industry payments. They will nearly all have excuses so that they can keep accepting the money. Young faculty are unlikely to be able to resist the prevailing culture, especially when it affects so many of their colleagues and supervisors.

I know that the people on our email lists are more aware of this than most. But we all should be saddened and ashamed that so little progress is being made.

Will academic medical institutions ever again put seeking and disseminating new knowledge, and providing and improving patient care and for the public health ahead of trying to be ersatz drug and device companies?

Will professional societies ever again put put their members' core values ahead of pleasing their corporate funders?

Will health care foundations ever again put rescuing health care's core values ahead of bland projects meant not to offend health care corporate leaders?


1. Campbell EG, Gruen RL, Mountford J et al. A national survey of physician–industry relationships. N Engl J Med 2007; 356:1742-1750. (link here)
2. Campbell EG, Weissman JS, Ehringhaus S et al. Institutional academic-industry relationships. JAMA 2007; 298: 1779-1786. (link here)
3. Korn D. Conflicts of interest in biomedical research. JAMA 2000; 284: 2234-2237. (link here)

1 comment:

Scot M Silverstein MD said...

We also know that medical schools and academic medical centers see commercializing their discoveries as taking precedence over their traditional mission of seeking and disseminating knowledge, and providing and improving patient care and public health

This goes back a long time now and has had a corrupting influence. I experienced the phenomenon in the form of a university, Yale, and its Office of Cooperative Research trying to simply misappropriate my IP (a set of computer programs with a novel user interface for genealogical capture and analysis I invented.)

This was in spite of the fact that their written IP policies clearly stated a formula for income sharing if a work or invention was commercialized, and retention of copyright by the faculty author, except under special circumstances - none of which existed.

The details of these events are at this link.

In retrospect, I might as well have been working for a pharma or biotech, whose claims to the inventions of employees would have been precisely the same as I experienced from the bastion of "Lux et Veritas" (Light and Truth).

Ironically, the head of the Cooperative Research Office (the Technology Transfer office) at that time was Henry Lowendorf, who I've since learned is a member of the left.

Apparently the smell of money knows no ideological bounds, although at least Henry did reveal to me that the ranking member of the now-defunct Human Genome Diversity Project, Yale scientist DFr. Kenneth Kidd, told him to find a way to "take the software away from him [me]."

-- SS

-- SS