In 2008, our post on this subject noted the minimal disclosure some of the surgeons receiving these huge payments made when writing scholarly articles on related topics. In 2009, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that almost 30% of surgeons who got such payments in 2007 failed to disclose them when they presented at the 2008 American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons meeting.(1)
Medtronic's Payments to Spine Surgeons
This month, the media reported that Medtronic also made payments, sometimes huge, to orthopedic and spine surgeons (see this post by Dr Howard Brody on the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma blog, and our summary post here.)
Now further investigation by John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel suggests that surgeons receiving often huge payments from Medtronic may not have been good at disclosing them either.
The article examined payments made to surgeons who authored two major studies about bone morphogenetic protein-2, a biologic drug manufactured by Medtronic used to promote bone growth at surgical sites:
Over the last decade, a small group of prominent surgeons from around the country has been enlisted by medical device-maker Medtronic to do clinical research or write articles about the company's new spine surgery product.
This year alone, many of those doctors received payments of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars each in royalties for a variety of other Medtronic spinal devices, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of newly released company payments. Medtronic began disclosing the payments this year, in advance of a federal requirement set to take effect in 2013.
Since it won approval for narrow uses in 2002, the product - bone morphogenetic protein-2, known as BMP-2 - has been an increasingly dominant force in spinal fusion surgery, with sales of about $800 million a year, often for use in other procedures.
Independent doctors say the product's success is due largely to positive findings made by the surgeons affiliated with the company.
Doctors involved with two of the many research articles on BMP-2 published since it was approved - one in 2002, the other in 2004 - received a combined $6 million in royalties this year for other Medtronic spinal products, the newspaper found. The payments went directly to the doctors or business entities they are associated with.
No Disclosure in a 2002 Article
The Journal-Sentinel article referred to two scholarly articles written about BMP-2. Regarding the first,
At the time BMP-2 was approved in 2002, little was known about the financial connections between Medtronic and doctors associated with the clinical trial. Likewise, little was known that year when the Journal of Spinal Disorders & Techniques published the article on the trial.[Note: I am unable to find this article using standard search techniques, so I cannot give a citation for it.]
The paper made no mention of doctors getting royalties or having any financial connection to the company.
Regarding the lack of disclosures made in the first article,
The four co-authors of a 2002 paper about that trial received a total of $2.8 million this year from Medtronic in royalties for products not including BMP-2.
The paper made no mention of any financial relationship between the authors and Medtronic.
Burkus, who also was involved in the 2004 study, again declined to say if he was receiving royalties from Medtronic or if had some other financial connection with the company at the time the 2002 paper was published. He got $573,000 through September.
Curtis Dickman, a Phoenix surgeon, did not respond to phone calls and e-mails. He and Vantage Investments LLC received $306,000 in royalties.
Matthew Gornet, a St. Louis surgeon, and Gornet Enterprises got $591,000 in royalty payments.
Gornet said he did not have a financial connection with the company at the time of the study, though he developed a relationship as a consultant right after the trial, an arrangement that ended after about a year.
He said his patent rights with Medtronic did not begin until 2003 and none of his royalties involves BMP-2.
The last author listed was Thomas Zdeblick, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Through September, he and Taz Consulting received $1.4 million in royalties for a variety of products.
Other records show Zdeblick has received more than $23 million in royalties from Medtronic since 2002.
In an e-mail, Zdeblick said he had no financial interest in BMP-2. He does receive royalties for the invention of the LT-Cage, which was used in the BMP-2 clinical trial, but the two products are sold separately.
Little Disclosure in the 2004 Article
Regarding the second article,(2)
Three of the four authors of a 2004 article on the study of the productare listed as receiving nearly $4 million this year in royalties from Medtronic for a variety of spinal products, not BMP-2.
That paper was important because it involved a clinical trial that had to be stopped because the product was causing troubling bone formation in the spinal canal of patients. In the paper, that finding was downplayed, with the authors describing the results as 'encouraging.'
[Professor Dan] Spengler, the Vanderbilt orthopedic surgeon and former medical journal editor, said he doubted the paper would have been written in such positive terms by authors without financial ties to Medtronic.
He described the article as egregious, saying it 'just blew off the complications. It's a horrible article.'
Orthopedic surgeon [University of California - Irvine Clinical Professor Charles] Rosen said the paper was biased, calling it 'more of a marketing paper than an objective scientific study.'
Regarding the disclosures made in the second article,
The article described three of the authors as consultants to Medtronic, though it did not disclose that any of them were receiving royalties at the time.Summary
Regis Haid, lead author of the article and an Atlanta neurosurgeon, told the Journal Sentinel he was getting royalties for other Medtronic products. Haid noted disclosure rules for medical journals have become more stringent in recent years.
He said BMP-2 provides excellent benefit to patients, adding he had it implanted in his own neck in an off-label procedure. ;I have BMP in me, and I would put it in you . . . ,' he told a reporter.
Through September, Haid and Spinal Engineering LLC received about $2 million in royalties this year from Medtronic.
Meanwhile, co-author Ken Burkus, a Columbus, Ga., surgeon, and RBCK Research & Consulting, received $573,000.
'Very importantly, you cannot assume that such royalty payments were made prior to 2010,' he said in an e-mail, declining to say whether he got royalties at the time the paper was written. 'I follow the rules to my fullest ability as put forward by the specific journal.'
He took issue with criticism that the paper put a positive spin on a troubling clinical trial.
'I believe the words used were appropriate . . . ,' he said. 'I believe the words used were neither 'positive nor negative' but rather were representative of the data presented.'
He said if other doctors have problems with the paper, they should take it up with the editor of the journal: 'They can write a letter to the editor.'
Co-author Charles Branch Jr., chairman of neurosurgery at Wake Forest University, and the university itself have received $1.2 million in royalties this year.
A spokeswoman for the university said it owns the intellectual property rights to Branch's patents and that royalties generally are split with 35% to the individual and 65% to the university. None of those royalties involved BMP-2, university media relations manager Bonnie Davis said in an e-mail.
She said Branch and Wake Forest were getting royalties at the time the paper was published, but not when the trial was going on.
In a separate e-mail, Branch said use of the term 'encouraging' in the paper 'was not a strong endorsement,' but, rather, recognition that patients getting BMP-2 had superior results to those receiving a traditional bone graft.
So here we go again. Once again we see an example of a single medical device company paying heroic amounts, hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars a year, to surgeons ostensibly as royalties for their intellectual property. The company and the surgeons were all rather cagey about the nature of the intellectual property for which the money was paid, and about the justification for the size of the payments.
While it is likely that the payments have been going on for a while, previous influential articles written by some of the surgeons receiving the payments contained at best minimal disclosure of their financial relationships with Medtronic, and gave no hint about the magnitude of these relationships. These previous influential articles seemed more enthusiastic about a Medtronic product than was justified by their results. Of course, maybe getting hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year from a commercial health care firm could lead to some excess enthusiasm about its products.
It seems that every drug, biotechnology, and device company has its stable of highly paid physicians and surgeons who can be counted on for their enthusiasm about the companies' products, and their reticence about their financial relationships with the companies. We have often discussed the pervasiveness of the web of conflicts of interest that seems to link most commercial health care firms with most influential medical academics and practitioners. The web seems even more pervasive than we once imagined, and the conflicts seem even more intense.
Those who laud ties between academic medicine and industry may perseverate about how collaboration leads to innovation, while denying that mere money can influence professional judgement. However, it is difficult to imagine how even the most well-intentioned professional would not be influenced by hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year. When professionals hide the magnitude of such relationships, it only raises more suspicions that they know they have something to hide because they realize they have been bought.
The ever increasing revelations about conflicts of interest pervading academic medicine should inspire extreme skepticism about clinical research or clinical teaching supported in any way by commercial interests. At the very least, these revelations justify the need for detailed and complete disclosure of all financial relationships among commercial health care firms and academic and practicing physicians, and others who make or influence health care decisions.
I suspect that if such full disclosure took place, physicians, other health care professionals and the public, at least those who had not been paid themselves, would be so aghast that such relationships would not remain legal for long.
1. Okike K, Kocher MS, Wei EX, Mehlman CT, Bhandari M. Accuracy of conflict-of-interest disclosures reported by physicians. N Engl J Med 2009; 361:1466-1474.
2. Haid RW, Branch CL, Alexander JT, Burkus JK. Posterior lumbar interbody fusion using recombinant human bone morphogenetic protein type 2 with cylindrical interbody cates. The Spine Journal 2004; 4: 527-539.