The Wilkes and Hoffman Op-Ed Questioning A University Sponsored Aggressive Prostate Cancer Screening Program
According to the Los Angeles Times, and a post in Inside Higher Ed, the trouble began when Dr Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine at University of California - Davis, and Jerome Hoffman, a professor of emergency medicine, wrote an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010 questioning the wisdom of a program run by UC-Davis promoting aggressive screening for prostate cancer with the PSA test. They brought up problems with using PSA for screening that have been known for a while, including the poor ability of the test to detect cancer, the inability of the test or of prostate biopsy performed in response to the test to differentiate aggressive prostate cancer from cancer that will not progress, which is more common, the risks of such biopsies, and the poor effectiveness of available prostate cancer treatments, compared with the frequency with which they produce harms. All these issues have again been brought to the fore by US Preventive Services Taskforce's latest recommendations not to screen for prostate cancer, based on similar concerns.
Not only did Wilkes and Hoffman question the basis for the university sponsored program's aggressiveness, they speculated that it might have to do with money. The program was sponsored not only by UC-Davis but by the American Urological Association Foundation. In fact, that foundation's current corporate sponsors include: Astellas Pharma, Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Intuitive Surgical, Inc., Pfizer, Inc., and Qualigen, Inc., although the op-ed did not specifically list its commercial support.
The University Slap(p?)s Back
Nonetheless, per the Inside Higher Ed post,
Michael Wilkes received an e-mail from an administrator at the University of California at Davis. Wilkes, a professor at the medical school, was told that he would no longer lead a program sequence that taught better patient care, and support for a Hungarian student exchange program he headed would be withdrawn.
Within weeks, Wilkes was told that he would be removed as director of global health for the UC Davis Health System. He also received letters from the university’s health system counsel suggesting that the university could potentially sue him for defamation over the op-ed.
Again, this occurred despite the facts that many distinguished people have questioned the wisdom of aggressive prostate cancer screening, and that this particular prostate cancer program was supported by an organization that in turn is supported by money from pharmaceutical devices and drug companies that may stand to gain from selling drugs and devices related to screening for prostate cancer, and the diagnosis and treatment of such cancer. Wilkes and Hoffman were raising valid clinical and policy concerns about the public actions of a government-supported university, in my humble opinion.
Thus the university lawyer's apparent threat of defamation suits thus appears to be a SLAPP, a threat of strategic litigation against public participation. In California, a 1993 law provides recourse for people who have been threatened with SLAPPs (look here).
The Faculty Committee Responds
Regardless, Prof Wilkes filed an internal complaint, and again, per Inside Higher Ed,
Now, a committee on academic freedom at the university that investigated allegations of intimidation and harassment against Wilkes has found them to be true. The faculty committee said in its report, a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed, that the actions of the university administrators cast doubt on its ability to be a 'truthful and accountable purveyor of knowledge and services.'
The group has asked the dean and other top officials at the university’s school of medicine to write letters of apology to the professor, admit to errors of judgment, stop proposed disciplinary actions against him and take steps to prevent future violations of academic freedom. This week, representatives of the university’s Academic Senate are expected to vote on similar resolutions against the administrators.
Now, according to the LA Times,
The next step is up to campus Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter, who in consultation with Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi is expected to decide by fall whether to impose any discipline on the medical school executives, campus officials said.
Good luck with that.
The Context at UC-Davis
I would be surprised if any such punishment occurs. After all, UC-Davis has a record of not tolerating dissent, but tolerating administrators who suppress such dissent. We have previously discussed:
- How the UC-Davis police infamously pepper sprayed peaceful student demonstrators, apparently at least partially in response to Chancellor Katehi's vague orders to clear the campus (see post here).
- A subsequent report blamed this incident on incompetent, or worse leadership by Katehi's administration, but so far it is not obvious that this has lead to any changes (see post here).
- How UC-Davis adminstrators tried to punish a medical student who got in a dispute with an overly officious student who apparently was "monitoring" his actions on an email list server, apparently on behalf of the administration, invoking "professionalism" as if that meant blind obedience to academic administrators (see post here).
Furthemore, Chancellor Katehi has a record of her own relationships to industry. Here we noted that she sits on the board of a large publishing conglomerate that includes a medical education and communication company (a MECC) as a subsidy. So I suspect she may not rush to punish subordinate executives because they suppressed criticism of the role of commercial money in medical academics.
So UC-Davis seems to be another academic medical institution run by people more interested in bringing in commercial support than the academic medical mission, including the support of free speech and academic freedom. Its case is another example of how leadership that seems hostile to the mission in one instance is likely to be hostile to the mission in other instances.
Here I summarized what I believe to be the real threats against professionalism in the academic medical context. As we have said again and again, true health care reform would encourage leadership who understand the mission and will put its support ahead of financial concerns and ahead of their own self-interest.
See also posts in the Health News Review blog, and the University Diaries blog.