Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Academic Medicine Deploys a Logical Fallacy to Avoid Disclosing Inconvenient Truths

We recently discussed a simultaneous retreat from aggressive regulation and enforcement applied to big health care corporations by US government agencies.  Now a story published by Bloomberg (currently available without a subscription here on PharmaGossip) showed that the push for less disclosure of relationships with industry that generated conflicts of interest for academic medicine came not from industry, but from ... academic medicine:
The lobby for Harvard University and other research institutions drove the Obama administration to weaken draft rules for scientists to disclose potential conflicts of interest, according to U.S. records and watchdog groups.

In particular,
Universities objected to draft rules in a letter to NIH and in meetings with officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget, approver of the final version, said Carrie Wolinetz, associate vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities that represents 61 research universities.

The letter was co-signed with the Association of American Medical Colleges, American Council on Education and Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

The one example of the universities' reasoning to justify their objections to greater disclosure of conflicts of interest was striking.
Wolinetz’s organization wrote in the letter that 'there is a paucity of evidence that the disclosure and management of financial conflicts of interest affect objectivity and integrity.'

Recall that the disclosure to which they objected would be by federally funded researchers, and of financial relationships with organizations that had vested interests related to the particular research projects. The Institute of Medicine's landmark report, "Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education and Practice,"  stated:
Disclosure of financial relationships with industry is an essential, though limited, first step in identifying and responding to conflicts of interest.

One could also argue, as did Senator Grassley, (see here) that disclosure is owed to the tax-payers who support the research.

On the other hand, I do not think anyone would argue that disclosure and the ill-defined "management" proposed by the NIH would be sufficient to guarantee "objectivity and integrity" of the research.

In fact, the IOM report called for going far beyond disclosure.  Specifically, it called for banning most conflicts affecting most clinical research:
researchers should not conduct research involving human participants if they have a financial interest in the outcome of the research

This goes far beyond what the original NIH revision of its conflict of interest rules mandated. However, I am sure that banning such relationships was the last thing that the AAU and AAMC wanted.

So the academic institutions' argument seems to be a variant on the false dilemma logical fallacy. If the only alternative to doing nothing about conflicts of interest is disclosure, and if disclosure is really a poor solution to the problem, than perhaps doing nothing makes sense. However, if disclosure is just a necessary first step, as the IOM asserted, then it is a first step that should be taken in preparation for other steps to come.

Note that the academic institutions' argument also seems to be a version of what has been called the Nirvana fallacy, or the perfect is the enemy of the good fallacy. That is, if what one can do does not result in Nirvana, then one should do nothing.

Finally, in this case the academic medical institutions' argument seemed too extreme even for their pharmaceutical industry supporters. As the Bloomberg article reported,
Researchers have been lax making financial disclosures and there’s been an absence of oversight, said Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research institute in New York. 'When you don’t properly disclose, you give the impression that you’re trying to hide something.'

Institutes should instead disclose all financial interests without trying to judge whether they are conflicts, Pitts said.

As we have discussed previously, Peter Pitts' main occupation has been as a leader in public relations for the pharmaceutical industry. He is currently a senior partner, director, global regulatory & health policy for Porter Novelli. Even though we have previously criticized Pitts for deploying logical fallacies in support of industry positions, in this case the academic medical institutions' argument was too much for him to support.

So we have come this far. Universities are ostensibly about finding and disseminating the truth. Yet universities' academic medical subsidiaries now deploy illogic to avoid revealing particular truths that they find uncomfortable, and which might raise questions about relationships with industry that are increasingly lucrative. Universities seem now willing to jettison their mission to make more money.

True health care reform would require academic medicine to put its mission ahead of its revenues.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Troublesome because of the potential conflict in objectivity as you state. Could the result be that patients end up with misleading or damaging information? It reminds me to ask my doctor questions, as well as ask about her affiliations to research groups or Pharma. I found this helpful when shaping my questions: