Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Lancet Emphasizes the Threats to the Academic Medical Mission

We just discussed an important article in the Lancet calling for major global reforms of health care education.(1)  An accompanying editorial(2) argued for the critical importance of upholding the mission of higher education, because that mission is critical to human civilization:
Louis Menand has investigated the current role of the modern university in his startlingly powerful book, The Marketplace of Ideas. Menand argues that: 'The pursuit, production, dissemination, application, and preservation of knowledge are the central activities of a civilisation.' More importantly still, 'the ability to create knowledge and put it to use is the adaptive characteristic of humans'. The goal of the university is 'to make more enlightened contributions to the common good'.

The editorial argued strongly for the revitalization of the university's mission:
'It is the academic's job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn't want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.'

The education of doctors, nurses, and public health workers must seek to: strengthen the overall intellectual culture of a society; define principles for public aspiration; give life to and enlarge the best and most proven ideas of the age; refine the grounds for the private exchanges that take place in our lives; facilitate the exercise of political power; and enable professionals to detect what is important and discard what is irrelevant, accommodate oneself with others, have common ground between colleagues across societies, ask good questions and find the means to answer them, and have the resources to adapt to national and global circumstances. Some readers might recognise that these words are adapted from John Henry Newman's On the Scope and Nature of University Education.

In England, Newman argued for the university as a centre of intellectual liberty, a vital force for progress in society. Menand writes about the university as a 'zone of autonomy'. The importance of tertiary education as a means to advance health, reason, democracy, and justice needs to be rediscovered.

But arguing so forcefully for upholding the academic mission makes sense only if that mission is under threat. The Lancet editorial only briefly alluded to why this might be:
What this Commission argues for is nothing less than a remoralisation of health professionals' education. For decades, health professionals have colluded with centres of power (governmental, commercial, institutional, even professional) to preserve their influence. The result? A contraction of ambition and a failure of moral leadership.

While the original article by Frenk et al suggested that health professionals' education has shortcomings, it did not argue that the academic mission is threatened.  Although the message of the accompanying editorial is that the mission needs a strong defense, it did not clearly explain the extent of the threat to it. 

However, this blog, Health Care Renewal, is largely concerned with threats to health care's core values, including threats to the mission of academic medicine, largely from concentration and abuse of power.  The largest set of threats come from the ascendancy of financial goals amidst the commercialization of health care (mentioned briefly both in Frenk et al and the editorial).  We have discussed the nature of the threats in detail.  For example,
  • Abandonment of traditional prohibitions of the commercial practice of medicine - In the US, a Supreme Court decision was interpreted to mean that medical societies could no longer regulate the ethics of their members.  Until 1980, the US American Medical Association had  ruled that the practice of medicine should not be "commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade."  After then, it ceased trying to maintain this prohibition.  The result was increasing, now rampant commercialization.  See posts  here and here.
  • Making money takes precedence over education -  A recent survey showing that more than half the faculty at multiple US medical schools felt they were valued more for how much money they brought in than their teaching or patient care abilities (here), confirming previous anecdotal reports (see here). 
  • The medical school re-imagined as a biotechnology company -  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…."  Many universities now defend lax conflict of interest policies with similar arguments.  For more details, go here.
  • Faculty become employees of industry - For numerous examples of this and other kinds of conflicts of interest, go here.  A survey by Campbell et al suggested that approximately two-thirds of medical academics get significant payments from industry.(4)
  • Academics become "key opinion leaders" paid to market drugs and devices - Marketers regard "key opinion leaders" as salespeople who appear more credible because of their professional guise.  See anecdotal evidence here.  
  • Control of clinical research given to commercial sponsors - A study by Mello et al showed how universities' grant administrators are willing to sign contracts giving commercial sponsors control over key aspects of human research studies.(5)  See post here
  • Conflicts of interest allow manipulation and suppression of clinical research - Commercially sponsored research design, implementation, and dissemination are often manipulated to favor the sponsor's interests.  When such manipulation fails to produce favorable results, the results may simply be suppressed.
  • Academics take credit for articles written by commercially paid ghost-writers - Such ghost-writing is often part of organized stealth marketing campaigns. 
  • Whistle blowers are discouraged, or worse, and academic freedom is damaged.  Discussion of some examples of what may happen to whistle blowers is here.  The survey mentioned earlier (here) showed that about one-third of faculty fear they may be punished for speaking  out. 
  • Leadership of academic medical centers by businesspeople - Ill-informed management may result from leaders who have no background or training in actual health care. 
  • Leaders of teaching hospitals and universities become millionaires -  A recent example is here, and more may be found here.  Leaders of academic medical centers and the parent universities of medical schools often make more than $1 million a year in the US.  When such amounts are in play, executives may focus more on short-term measures that lead to even more pay than on upholding the mission. 
  • Medical school leaders become stewards (as members of boards of directors) of for-profit health care corporations - A recent example is here, and a summary of how we discovered this phenomenon in 2006 is here.   The conflict of interest is severe because directors of for-profit corporations are supposed to have unyielding loyalty to the interests of the corporation and its stockholders, although they are frequently accused of acting mainly as cronies of the top hired executives (see here and here).
  • Leaders of failed finance firms become stewards of academic medicine - We have found numerous examples, recently here, here, and here, of top executives and/or board members of the finance firms who helped bring on the global financial collapse also being trustees of medical schools, academic medical centers, or their parent universities.  Such "stewards" may bring to the academic environment the "greed is good" culture now pervasive in finance. 
So the threats are real and substantial.  However, their scope generally generally gets little attention.  Even when specific threats appear in the academic literature, their importance may be soft-pedaled, and their confluence with other threats ignored.  Of course, trying to discuss the full breadth and depth of these threats, as we endeavor to do on this blog, threatens in turn those who have personally profited from the current system.  Hence, we frequently cite the anechoic effect, the phenomenon that important threats to health care's core values are often just not discussed in polite company.

Therefore, we applauded the article by Frenk et al for concatenating some of the most important challenges to health care professionals' education, and we now applaud the Lancet editorial for emphasizing the threat to the academic medical mission.  We hope that these two articles, appearing in one of the most prestigious and well-read medical journals, will help to combat the anechoic effect.  Meanwhile, we will continue to blog about threats to core values in the hope that discussing them will lead to solutions.

1.  Frenk J, Chen L, Bhutta ZA, Cohen J, Crisp N, Evans T et al. Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world.  Lancet 2010; 376: 1923-1958.  Link here.
2.  Horton R. A new epoch for health professionals' education.  Lancet 2010; 376: 1875-7.  Link here.
3. Korn D. Conflicts of interest in biomedical research. JAMA 2000; 284: 2234-2237. Link here.
4. Campbell EG, Gruen RL, Mountford J et al. A national survey of physician–industry relationships. N Engl J Med 2007; 356:1742-1750. Llink here.
5. Mello MM, Clarridge BR, Studdert DM. Academic medical centers' standards for clinical-trial agreements with industry. N Engl J Med 2005; 352: 21.  Link here.


Scot M Silverstein MD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scot M Silverstein MD said...

'The pursuit, production, dissemination, application, and preservation of knowledge are the central activities of a civilisation ... It is the academic's job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn't want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.'

It also follows that those who oppose that job and the questions those in it ask are not well civilized.

Another category in the "nature of the threats" might be allowing a cross disciplinary invasion by non-medical or pseudo-medical personnel who do not share medicine's core values - nor hold a clinicians' obligations and accountabilities.

In my field, I have observed an invasion of medicine by the IT industry.

A striking example of what can occur is when a physician or other clinician reports to a non-medical IT officer such as a CIO, in implementing health IT of unknown value and risk.

I see this as a prima facie example of taking medicine's values and turning them on their head.

-- SS

Anonymous said...

Eric Hoffer: "Every great cause begins as a movement, degenerates into a business, and ends up as a racket.”

Sadly I feel this describes the state of education in America at all levels. Local schools are driven by administrators hoping to improve their income.

Administrators at almost all colleges are trying to improve their “numbers” in a hope of either a raise or moving on to another institution with greater pay. In my community we have seen a young lobbyist move in and out of a university’s administration.

All the while those front line educators understand that doing a good job will not result in a raise or recognition.

Education does have a corporate culture, and it has become one I would not be proud of.

Steve Lucas