As we noted yesterday, the CareFusion settlement seemed routine when it was first briefly reported in the media. Then Modern Healthcare published a series of articles about its ramifications, the latest appearing today.
In summary prior to the latest article,
- the CareFusion settlement for $40.1 million was made in response to allegations that kickbacks were made to promote ChloraPrep, a solution meant for preoperative skin cleaning
- the Department of Justice news release also alleged that payments were made to a corporation called Health Care Concepts to conceal kickbacks made to its owner, Dr Charles Denham
- the implication was that Dr Denham was supposed to influence a standard writing committee run by the National Quality Forum, a well known organization that promotes quality improvement, issues authoritative practice standards, a form of clinical practice guidelines, and has contracts with the US government for quality of care activities
- the draft of the standard written by the committee allegedly included the use of ChloraPrep, although mention of that specific medication was removed in a revision
We noted that the NQF policy on conflicts of interest for its standard writing committees seemed somewhat weak. The current (October, 2013) policy asks members to internally disclose conflicts and recuse themselves from " discussion of the applicable measure or measures, and in some instances competing and related measures." However it does not ban members with conflicts, nor require public disclosure of conflicts. We also noted that NQF has several board members who have full-time leadership positions with health care corporations, financial firms that invest in health care, or health care trade associations, and NQF received funding from pharmaceutical companies and their in-house foundations. Thus NQF appears to have its own institutional conflicts of interest.
So we thought that the case raised questions about how well NQF standards are protected from the influence of conflicts of interest, and whether they should remain so influential in the absence of stronger protections?
NQF Clarifies its Conflicts of Interest Policies
As reported by Modern Healthcare, it took only a day for the NQF to issue yet another press release to clarify its conflict of interest polcies. In particular,
I n response to concerns that the community raised about the evidence base underlying Safe Practice #22 and Dr. Denham’s inordinate interest in this particular Safe Practice, NQF took the following steps in early 2010:
- Severed its relationship with Dr. Denham who has not been involved in any other NQF work since March 2010;
- Made a decision to refuse offers for financial support from Dr. Denham’s foundation, discontinuing a 2008 - 2013 grant agreement that had more than three years remaining ;
- Determined that it would not enter into grant agreements where the funder is on the endorsement committee, even as a non-voting member;
- Reviewed committee reports that Dr. Denham was involved in to be certain that he did not influence their outcome; NQF staff believe that he did not; and
- Updated and enhanced its conflict of interest policy – in 2010 and again in 2013;
So NQF appeared to react ad hoc to concerns that Dr Denham was too avid about the use of a particular product. Its response included strengthening its COI policy and banning one particular type of conflict, receiving funding from an organization controlled by a member of a standard writing committee. However, as we noted above, the 2013 policy still has its weaknesses.
Furthermore, an NQF executive volunteered to inform me that while the current written COI policy does not require public disclosure, in practice the organization requires public verbal disclosure of conflicts at the beginning of each committee meeting, and that the transcripts of these disclosures are available on the organization's website. However, how to reach these disclosures is not obvious, and I so far have not been able to find the transcript that supposedly contains the disclosures for the meeting which Dr Denham co-chaired
Summary and a Few Optimistic Thoughts (Rare as They are for Us)
What I must say is now most unusual in the CareFusion/ Dr Denham/ NQF case is that NQF leadership, rather than hunkering down in a defensive posture we have seen many other leaders adapt, seems to be trying to take steps toward addressing problems posed by conflicts of interest affecting its standard setting, guideline development, and quality assurance. First, it is clear that NQF leaders did react to concerns about Dr Denham, and did somewhat tighten up their conflict of interest policies in response to them. Second, it is clear that they are willing to listen to public questions and criticism, and at least consider further change in response to them. They thus appear far more open than do leaders of many other organizations.
IMHO, NQF leadership is to be congratulated for this more transparent approach. If only the leaders of other health care organizations would do as much.
Since they do seem open to criticism and change, in the spirit of constructive criticism, I do hope that NQF leaders might also consider:
- further strengthening their conflict of interest policy for standard setting committees, particularly by minimizing the number of committee members with conflicts, and banning individuals with conflicts from chairing committees, as per the IOM report on standards for trustworthy clinical practice guideline development
- increasing transparency about conflicts of interest, particularly by making disclosures for all projects available without complex web searching
- decreasing institutional conflicts of interest by refusing funding from health care corporations whose revenues might be affected by the content of standards and guidelines, and reducing conflicts affecting NQF board members and executives
Health care leaders who see transparency and reduction of conflicts of interest as important goals show us that true health care reform might actually be possible.
ADDENDUM (24 January, 2014 - I was told that many people may need an explanation of the title. "Putting in the ski lifts" is a shortened version of an old college saying. The location for the ski lifts was a place that is traditionally very hot, think fire and brimstone. The phrase refers to an extremely improbably event. Sorry about any confusion.