A JAMA Commentary Decries Leaders of Academic Medical Centers Serving on Boards of Organizations with Conflicting Priorities
A recent JAMA commentary(1) noted the importance of conflicts of interest affecting top leaders of academic medicine,
Conflict of interest is particularly relevant for those in the upper echelons of academic health system leadership—presidents, vice presidents, provosts, deans, chief executive officers, and the senior administrators who report to them.
(The article oddly omitted discussing conflicts of interest affecting the boards of trustees of such institutions, who are charged with their stewardship.)
Anyway, the authors' rationale was that,
Unlike most faculty and staff, senior institutional officials are involved in financial and business decisions, including purchasing, resource allocation, and development of corporate partnerships, and have fiduciary responsibility to the entire institution. In addition, it is critical that the public, students, employees, and faculty maintain confidence in the integrity of institutional leaders. Leaders have a responsibility to set an example for others in their institution, especially for those training to be health care professionals.
Independence and integrity of judgment are core precepts of professionalism. Every employee, faculty member, and student in an academic health system should feel confident that their leaders are making decisions based on the best interests of the institution and not driven by biases secondary to financial connections to outside corporate entities.
Having a fiduciary responsibility to 2 separate entities is at best a very difficult situation. Will the leader direct business inappropriately to the outside company on whose board he or she sits? Will the leader inappropriately use information about the institution he or she leads to influence decisions by the outside corporation? It is difficult to separate these types of activities and decisions. In addition, there are administrative costs associated with the management of this level of conflict, and such relationships might have a 'chilling effect' on other companies that could do business with the academic health system. Beyond service on fiduciary boards, undertaking any paid role (consulting, participation on advisory boards, etc) with an outside entity with interests that overlap those of the leader’s institution raises the same issues.
The authors stressed that the most intense conflicts are generated by service on the boards of directors of "organizations with interests that overlap those of the academic health system." Presumably they would have included among such organizations health care corporations that sell goods or services that might be used within academic medical centers, and/or be the subject of teaching or research by faculty at these centers, although the article did not make that explicit.
The authors suggested such conflicts are not infrequent, noting a survey by Campbell et al of department chairs in academic medical institutions that showed a majority had some sort of relationships with industry, although they did not specify what these relationships were. In fact, the Campbell article did report that 11% of department chairs admitted to being on the board of directors of companies that had activities that related to the chairs' academic or administrative responsibilities.(2)
Finally, the authors called for banning most such conflicts
the fiduciary responsibilities of presidents, provosts, vice presidents, deans, chief executive officers, and those who report to them should preclude a paid relationship with an outside entity in related and relevant areas,...
Note however that they did offer some loopholes.
unless a case can be made that there is a compelling institutional interest in the leader’s service in such a role, or if the role with the outside organization is outside the scope of the leader’s role at the academic health system.
Despite the omissions and loopholes, this is a very significant article. It is the first challenge to such severe conflicts of interest affecting academic medicine to appear as an article in a major medical journal, at least to my knowledge.
You Heard It Here First
However, on Health Care Renewal we have been attempting to challenge such conflicts for at least eight years. In 2006 we first discussed a newly discovered species of conflict of interest in health care, in which leaders of medical or health care organizations were simultaneously serving on boards of directors of health care corporations.
We posited these conflicts would be particularly important because being on the board of directors entails not just a financial incentive. It ostensibly requires board members to "demonstrate unyielding loyalty to the company's shareholders" [Per Monks RAG, Minow N. Corporate Governance, 3rd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. P.200.] Of course, after the global financial collapse of 2008 made us sadder and a little wiser, we realized that many board members actually seem to have unyielding loyalty to their cronies among top management. However, in any case, the stated or actual interests of a member of the board of a health care corporation, like a pharmaceutical company or medical device company, could be very different and at odds with the mission of an academic medical institution or a non-profit ostensibly dedicated to improving health care quality.
Vivid Cases Would Strengthen the Argument
It is odd that the JAMA article included very little evidence about the occurrence of such conflicts of interest. It really is not hard to find. Since 2006, we have discussed numerous cases of such conflicts of interest.
The case that first attracted our attention was that of Marye Anne Fox, the then Chancellor of the University of California - San Diego, a major campus of the state university that includes a medical school. January, 2006 media reports noted that Chancellor Fox was simultaneously servingon 10 corporate boards, including those of two health care corporations, Boston Scientific, a medical device company, and Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc (PPDI), a for-profit contract research organization. At the time, I wrote,
having ultimate leadership responsibilities for a medical school and medical center, while also having ultimate fiduciary responsibilities for the management of a medical device company and a contract medical research company amounts to the biggest conflicts of interest I have ever seen.
Nonetheless, beyond local media, the case got little attention at the time. What attention it did get focused on the magnitude of Chancellor Fox's commitments to outside organizations, not the conflicts they apparently caused (look here). Chancellor Fox apparently retired from the PPDI board in 2008 (look here) but did not retire from the Boston Scientific Board until 2011 (look here).
Since then, we found many more striking cases.
- A month later, there was the case of the president of the University of Miami, a board member of for-profit health insurance company UnitedHealth, whose lowest paid employees were on strike to protest their lack of health insurance, among other issues.
- It turned out the UnitedHealth board in particular seemed to be a refuge for multiple academic leaders, at least one of whom seemed partly responsible for allowing the then UnitedHealth CEO to collect many backdated stock options (look here)..
- Then there was the 2008 case of the conflict of interest involving an anti-health company. After Virginia Commonwealth University was criticized for taking money from giant tobacco company Philip Morris for medical research, it turned out that the then president of the university, Eugene Trani, was on the board of another tobacco company, Universal Corp (see post here).
- Then, in 2009, some attributed the problems at George Washington University's medical school that caused it to be put on probation to the conflict of interest of its provost and vice president for health affairs, John F Williams, who also sat on the board of Universal Health Services, which owned the university hospital (look here).
We posted about a number of other colorful cases since then (look here)
Although this evidence is admittedly case based and therefore anecdotal, it could be used to highlight the importance of the problem and develop support for its solution.
A Welcome Addition to Previous Recommendations about Countering Conflicts of Interest
For whatever reason, this issue somehow seemed to escape the attention of many of those who have written about conflicts of interest in health care. Even those who advocated taking a harder line on conflicts of interest have generally avoided this issue.
Brennan et al made recommendations about reducing conflicts of interest in 2006, but focused on students and faculty, not top leaders and executives (see post here).(3) The 2009 Institute of Medicine report set relatively tough standards for managing conflicts of interest affecting clinical research and teaching, which unfortunately since have largely been ignored. It did call for senior institutional officials to disclose their conflicts of interest, and for institutional boards of trustees to form conflicts of interest committees that would exclude conflicted individuals, but otherwise did not address conflicts of interest affecting academic leaders or institutional trustees. The 2013 Pew Charitable Trusts Conflicts-of-Interest Policies for Academic Medical Centers suggested restrictions on conflicts affecting faculty, trainees, and students, but again did not mention senior institutional leaders or boards of trustees.
So it is very nice to see that the issue of what we once called a new species of conflict of interest finally has made the big time. Whether it now gets any traction remains to be seen. Unfortunately, since conflicts of interest can be so profitable for the directly affected parties, I fully expect they will continue to oppose any restrictions. The money they have made will likely be used to deploy marketing and public relations personnel and legal counsel to counter any attempts to try to make this aspect of health care more honest.
As we have said again and again, the web of conflicts of interest that is pervasive in medicine and health care is now threatening to strangle medicine and health care. For patients and the public to trust health care professionals and health care organizations, they need to know that these individuals and organizations are putting patients' and the public's health ahead of private gain. Health care professionals who care for patients, those who teach about medicine and health care, clinical researchers, and those who make medical and health care policy should do so free from conflicts of interest that might inhibit their abilities to put patients and the public's health first.
1. Pisano ED, Golden RN,Schweitzer L. Conflict of interest policies for academic health system leaders who work with outside corporations. JAMA 2014;311(11):1111-1112. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.788 Link here.
2. Campbell EG, Weissman JS, Ehringhaus S et al. Institutional academic-industry relationships. JAMA 2007;298(15):1779-1786. doi:10.1001/jama.298.15.1779. Link here.
3, Brennan TA, Rothman DJ, Blank L et al. Health industry practices that create conflicts of interest. a policy proposal for academic medical centers. JAMA 2006;295(4):429-433. doi:10.1001/jama.295.4.429 Link here.