Thursday, March 01, 2007

Medical Schools Go Better With Pepsi?

This is not a new story, but one I just discovered thanks to one of our helpful correspondents. The Associated Press reported this controversy late last year.

The dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School is defending her decision to join the corporate board of PepsiAmericas, even though doctors and public health officials increasingly name Pepsi and other sugary drinks as a major factor in rampant childhood obesity and tooth decay.

Medical School Dean Deborah Powell said it's fair to question why she would join the board of the world's second-largest maker of soft drinks.

'I really thought about that a lot,' Powell told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. 'I thought it was an opportunity for me as a health professional to have my voice heard by the leadership of a major beverage distributor with a global reach.'

Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and Mountain Dew remain its most important brands, accounting for $3 billion in U.S. sales. That could put Powell in a delicate position, on the board of a company whose success rests on products often reviled by her medical peers.

But Powell believes she can bridge the two worlds.

'The issue of children and adolescents being exposed to carbonated, sugar-filled soft drinks is one that everybody is talking about, and I think (corporate) boards have to reflect about,' Powell said. 'I think we can do it in a responsible way to ensure that the company is successful and shareholder value is maximized and people take into account responsible stewardship.'

Like all outside directors, Powell will be paid in cash and company stock for her board service. That includes a $30,000 annual retainer, $2,000 for each board meeting she attends and $60,000 in stock.
With all due respect, I do not believe Dean Powell understood the responsibilities of a director of a public, for-profit company. Her job is not to "make her voice heard" about or thus advise the company about public health or health care policy. Her job is to take fiduciary responsibility for the company for the benefit of its stockholders. Her job is to maximize the financial performance of the company, whether or not doing so is in accord with her, or anyone's ideas about ideal health policy. That is why her new position could lead her into conflicts of interest.

I wonder whether leaders of academic health care who have more acute conflicts of interest, because they also are directors of pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, managed care, or contract research companies, may similarly misunderstood, or rationalized their corporate responsibilities.

If so, they ought to be better informed. But as long as they accept fiduciary responsibility for for-profit health care companies, they are liable to acute conflicts of interest between those responsibilities and their responsibilities to uphold the academic health care mission, which requires putting the care of individual patients first, and creating and disseminating knowledge through free enquiry.


Anonymous said...

This problem is not limited to doctors taking on inappropriate roles with regard to public policy but also politicians who can drive cost through mandates. From the Feb. 24-25, WSJ editorial page we learn of the former speaker of North Carolina, Jim Black, pleading guilty to accepting $29,000 from three chiropractors to lower co-pays. Mr. Black also was pushing a mandate for eye exams prior to entering kindergarten, he is an optometrist.

When politicians ignore their fiduciary duty we all pay. Mandates are the newest twist to this story with North Carolina having 44, while the US average is 32. Mr. Black's action increased the insurance cost in the state by 3%.

The question that must then be raised is: with politicians, academics, and others accepting positions in direct conflict with their stated institutional goals, how do we the public, take charge?

Medical cost are skyrocketing and will soon consume our country. Yet we cannot look to our leadership for unbiased solutions.

Steve Lucas

MsMelody said...

If Dean Powell is "leading by example," what is the message being conveyed to those whom she leads (doctors-in-the-making)? Do they learn that a bit of ethical (moral) compromise may lead to influencing powerful corporate decision-makers to change their profit-driven motivation? Or, do they learn, that a bit of ethical (moral) compromise is handsomely rewarded . . . in other words, "I've worked hard, climbed to a position of academic power--now, SHOW ME THE MONEY!"

Which lesson is more easily learned?

It is mind-boggling to me that academics bemoan their declining credibility and yet continue to behave in manners that do nothing but provide fuel to the fire. Until Big Business is removed from the halls of higher education, there is little hope for change. Those who accept our tax dollars as part of their salary, OWE the taxpayers more than just a cursory "I'll do the right thing" disclaimer, uttered immediately before jumping into bed with big corporations.

Academics who behave in this manner--you shame your students, your university, your profession, your country. Enjoy the perks! I am sure you are well entitled.

Anonymous said...

The dean may merely be naive and quickly become disillusioned about having a "voice"; I say let her learn. However, she should donate all her compensation to an appropriate charity in the meantime.