Thursday, February 03, 2005

Pogo at the NIH

If we, as health professionals, want health care to be more honestly and rationally managed, we must be prepared to do our best to conduct ourselves honestly and rationally. Of course, dealing honestly with others is a fundamental value for physicians, and is codified in, for example, the AMA Principles of Medical Ethics, and the ACP-ASIM-ESIM Physician Charter.

Today's Washington Post has a disturbing report about NIH staff reactions to the new ethics policy, (first reported on Health Care Renewal here and here.) According to the Post, "nary a positive word had been uttered about the new policy, and there was more vented spleen around than a busy medical center like the NIH might normally see in a year." For example, Chief of Clinical Bioethics Ezekiel Emanuel "fumed" that his secretary would have to sell her stock, (presumably because the rules require that lower-ranking NIH employees limit individual stock holdings in drug, biotechnology, and similar companies to those valued at less than $15,000), and later asked "if we want to reassure the public, why don't we apply these [rules] to everyone who gets an NIH grant." There was indignation that the rules didn't apply to other federal departments, like Energy, Agriculture, and Defense, and that they didn't apply to grant reviewers.

These comments seem to reflect a troubling lack of knowledge about how the NIH funds research outside of its walls. Hardly any individuals get NIH grants. The money goes to their institutions. Many research universities have had strict conflict of interest policies in place for quite a while. NIH grant reviewers have also had to follow strict conflict of interest rules going back to at least the 1980's. These rules, unlike those that applied to NIH full-time employees, were never, to my knowledge, relaxed.

The comments also seem to exaggerate the hardships imposed by the new rules for NIH full-time employees. NIH employees are not being asked to give their stock holdings away. They are being asked to sell them, and they get to keep the money. Nor are they being barred from most kinds of investment. They can own stock in any kind of company that is not directly involved with pharma, biotech, and the like, and they can own any mutual fund or other diversified holding.

But it is most discouraging to hear high level NIH employees, and particularly their head of bioethics, complain that they should only be subject to the lowest common denominator of ethical rules, rather than at least acknowledge the need to set an example after their organization has been tarred by scandal.

As Pogo said, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

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