Friday, March 06, 2009

Harvard Medical Students Against Marketing in the Guise of Medical Education

An article by Duff Wilson in the New York Times this week provided a new look at the pervasiveness of financial relationships among academic medicine and health care corporations, and the beginnings of resistance to them.

The Scope of the Relationships

Many individual Harvard Medical faculty members receive tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through industry consulting and speaking fees. Under the school’s disclosure rules, about 1,600 of 8,900 professors and lecturers have reported to the dean that they or a family member had a financial interest in a business related to their teaching, research or clinical care. The reports show 149 with financial ties to Pfizer and 130 with Merck.

The rules, though, do not require them to report specific amounts received for speaking or consulting, other than broad indications like 'more than $30,000.' Some faculty who conduct research have limits of $30,000 in stock and $20,000 a year in fees. But there are no limits on companies’ making outright gifts to faculty — free meals, tickets, trips or the like.

Other blandishments include industry-endowed chairs like the three Harvard created with $8 million from sleep research companies; faculty prizes like the $50,000 award named after Bristol-Myers Squibb, and sponsorships like Pfizer’s $1 million annual subsidy for 20 new M.D.’s in a two-year program to learn clinical investigation and pursue Harvard Master of Medical Science degrees, including classes taught by Pfizer scientists.

Academic Medical Leaders' Defense of Their Relationships with Industry

Dr. Flier, who became dean 17 months ago, previously received a $500,000 research grant from Bristol-Myers Squibb. He also consulted for three Cambridge biotechnology companies, but says that those relationships have ended and that he has accepted no new industry affiliations.

So maybe it is not surprising that:

Dr. Flier says that the Harvard Medical faculty may lead the nation in receiving money from industry, as well as government and charities, and he does not want to tighten the spigot. 'One entirely appropriate source, if done properly, is industrial funds,' Dr. Flier said in an interview.


That is in contrast to his predecessor as dean, Dr. Joseph B. Martin. Harvard’s rules allowed Dr. Martin to sit on the board of the medical products company Baxter International for 5 of the 10 years he led the medical school, supplementing his university salary with up to $197,000 a year from Baxter, according to company filings.

Dr. Martin is still on the medical faculty and is founder and co-chairman of the Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center, which researches degenerative diseases, and actively solicits industry money to do so. Dr. Martin declined any comment.

Note that we discussed Dr Martin's directorship of Baxter on Health Care Renewal here in 2006, and that we also found that he was on the board of biotechnology company Cytyc. Note also that we have discussed how serving on the board of a health care corporation can produce particularly intense conflicts of interest for academic medical leaders, since such board service implies not just warm and fuzzy feelings for the company, but "unyielding loyalty" to the financial interests of the company and its stockholders (e.g., see this post).

Unsurprisingly, faculty who have their own lucrative relationships with industry are all for more of the same:

Encouraging them is Dr. Thomas P. Stossel, a Harvard Medical professor who has served on advisory boards for Merck, Biogen Idec and Dyax, and has written widely on academic-industry ties. 'I think if you look at it with intellectual honesty, you see industry interaction has produced far more good than harm,' Dr. Stossel said. 'Harvard absolutely could get more from industry but I think they’re very skittish. There’s a huge opportunity we ought to mine.'
Note that Dr Stossel defended academic-industry "interaction," but did not explain why such interaction seems always to generate large money flows from industry to academic institutions and their individual faculty members. People can surely interact without paying each other.

Note further that Dr Stossel may have even more financial relationships with industry than appeared in the NY Times article. When we analyzed some of the logical fallacies Dr Stossel employed in favor of industry payments to physicians in 2007, we cited Stossel's attck on the rigorous conflicts of interest rules re-imposed on the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in which Stossel had to disclose "having received consulting fees from ZymeQuest, owning stock options in ZymeQuest and Biogen, and having pending and issued patents, owned by Brigham and Women's Hospital, some of which are licensed to ZymeQuest." [Stossel TP. Regulating academic-industrial research relationships - solving problems or stifling progress? N Engl J Med 2005; 353: 1060-1065.] In this paean to a laissez-faire approach to conflicts of interest, Stossel also disclosed that he "is a member of the Board of Directors of Zymequest Inc, and the Scientific Leadership Advisory Board of Merck & Co. The author is a founding scientist of Critical Biologics Corporation and a consultant to Boston Scientific, Inc., and Gerson-Lehrman, Inc." [Stossel TP. Regulation of financial conflicts of interest in medical practice and medical research. Perspect Biol Med 2007; 50: 54-71. ]

Another defender of the status quo also has her own major relationships with industry:

Merck built a corporate research center in 2004 across the street from Harvard’s own big new medical research and class building. And Merck underwrites plenty of work on the Harvard campus, including the immunology lab run by Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher — a professor who also sits on the board of the drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb, which paid her nearly $270,000 in 2007.

Dr. Glimcher says industry money is not only appropriate but necessary. 'Without the support of the private sector, we would not have been able to develop what I call our ‘bone team’ in our lab,' she said at a recent student and faculty forum to discuss industry relationships. Merck is counting on her team to help come up with a successor to Fosamax, the formerly $3 billion-a-year bone drug that went generic last year.

Note that Dr Glimcher now seems to view her role not as someone seeking to discover and disseminate the truth, but as someone seeking to develop commercial products. Again, maybe that is not surprising, since she is supposed to have an "unyielding loyalty" to the prominent pharmaceutical company on whose board she sits.

The NY Times article did not quote anybody in favor of financial relationships between academic medicine and industry who did not themselves have such relationships. I don't believe I have ever seen a defense of these relationships not authored by someone who was not already personally profiting from such relationships.

The Revolt of the Medical Students

While he documented how Harvard faculty who also lead huge pharmaceutical firms have no qualms about industry pouring money into medical academics, Mr Wilson found that medical students seem to have figured out the downside of being taught by pharmaceutical, biotechnology and device company employees:
In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.

Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.

'I felt really violated,' Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, recently recalled. 'Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.'

Mr. Zerden’s minor stir four years ago has lately grown into a full-blown movement by more than 200 Harvard Medical School students and sympathetic faculty, intent on exposing and curtailing the industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories, as well as in Harvard’s 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes.

They say they are concerned that the same money that helped build the school’s world-class status may in fact be hurting its reputation and affecting its teaching.

Note that the example, while anecdotal, shows how financial relationships could lead to biased education. The students have made surprising progress:

The Harvard students have already secured a requirement that all professors and lecturers disclose their industry ties in class — a blanket policy that has been adopted by no other leading medical school. (One Harvard professor’s disclosure in class listed 47 company affiliations.)

'Harvard needs to live up to its name,' said Kirsten Austad, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student who is one of the movement’s leaders. 'We are really being indoctrinated into a field of medicine that is becoming more and more commercialized.'

David Tian, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student, said: 'Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it’s something that’s purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education when that information is also presented for marketing purposes.'

The students say they worry that pharmaceutical industry scandals in recent years — including some criminal convictions, billions of dollars in fines, proof of bias in research and publishing and false marketing claims — have cast a bad light on the medical profession. And they criticize Harvard as being less vigilant than other leading medical schools in monitoring potential financial conflicts by faculty members.

Unfortunately, many academics of my generation have become so used to making some extra dollars by working part-time for companies selling health care goods or services that they cannot see how these relationships have distracted them from the academic mission and their professional ideals. Maybe the rising generation of students, now living in a time when the consequences of arrogance, greed, and corruption among our leaders has become so apparent, will put professionalism ahead of personal enrichment.


InformaticsMD said...

Dr. Glimcher says industry money is not only appropriate but necessary. 'Without the support of the private sector, we would not have been able to develop what I call our ‘bone team’ in our lab,' she said at a recent student and faculty forum to discuss industry relationships. Merck is counting on her team to help come up with a successor to Fosamax, the formerly $3 billion-a-year bone drug that went generic last year.

Interesting. Bone metabolism was located right down the hall from my library sciences group at West Point from 2000 to 2003. In the common water cooler room, I had discussions with some of them and thought such discoveries were their responsibility.

What happened to them, I wonder?

-- SS

Anonymous said...

In the WSJ Health Blog's coverage of this topic we find the first comment to be:

"3 days, 7 hours ago
Pharma Guy wrote: The major ‘good” that professor Stossel speaks of as a result of industry interaction has been the padding of the bank accounts of these so-called “key opinion leaders.” I’ve had the opportunity to see it first hand and it is obscene! Honestly, the KOLs should be ashamed of themselves."

There was also a related article concerning a Pfizer employee taking photos of protesters at Harvard. Pfizer claimed they were for the employees personal use and thus had no relationship to the company.

Intended or not these actions have the implicit within them an attempt at intimidation. When the facility at a storied institution participate in this type of action they are truly putting everything they profess as academic freedom at risk.

Steve Lucas