Friday, May 22, 2009

"A Breach of Trust"

This new variation on a now old theme first appeared in the New York Times:

A former surgeon at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who is a paid consultant for a medical company, published a study that made false claims and overstated the benefits of the company’s product in treating soldiers severely injured in Iraq, the hospital’s commander said Tuesday.

An investigation by Walter Reed found that the study cited higher numbers of patients and injuries than the hospital could account for, said the commander, Col. Norvell V. Coots.

'It’s like a ghost population that were reported in the article as having been treated that we have no record of ever having existed,' Colonel Coots said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. 'So this really was all falsified information.'

The former Army surgeon, Dr. Timothy R. Kuklo, reported that a bone-growth product sold by Medtronic Inc. had much higher success in healing the shattered legs of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed than other doctors there had experienced, according to Colonel Coots and a summary of an Army investigation of the matter.

Dr. Kuklo, 48, now an associate professor at the Washington University medical school in St. Louis, did not respond to numerous e-mail messages and telephone calls to his office and home seeking comment over the last two weeks. Walter Reed officials say he did not respond to their inquiries during their investigation.

Army investigators found that Dr. Kuklo forged the signatures of four Walter Reed doctors on the article before submitting it last year to a British medical journal, falsely claiming them as co-authors. He also did not obtain the Army’s required permission to conduct the study.

In its March edition, at the Army’s request, the journal retracted the article — something that has gone largely unnoticed outside orthopedic circles.

While at Walter Reed and since, Dr. Kuklo has given talks to other doctors around the country about the bone-growth product, a protein called Infuse, according to meeting agendas and published documents.

A Medtronic spokeswoman, Marybeth Thorsgaard, confirmed that Dr. Kuklo was a paid consultant to the company and that the company financially supported some of his research at Walter Reed, through a foundation affiliated with the hospital.

During his time at Walter Reed Dr. Kuklo was extensively involved in research and writing about various Medtronic products, including editing two books published by the company and conducting three studies that were approved by his Army superiors, according to his list of publications and an Army report.

Colonel Coots said Tuesday that the total number of patients Dr. Kuklo reported as having been treated for extensive lower leg wounds at Walter Reed during the study period — 138 soldiers — was greater than the number for which the hospital could find records.

'It is a significant breach of academic protocol,' Colonel Coots said. 'It’s a breach of trust.'

This story has several familiar elements, but combines them in some interesting ways.

We have discussed how health care corporations, particularly pharmaceutical manufacturers, cultivate "key opinion leaders," and use them to market their products. This may amount to stealth marketing, since KOLs rarely disclose in detail their relationships with corporate sponsors, and instead further their marketing objectives cloaked as academics.

We have also discussed how health care corporations, particularly pharmaceutical manufacturers, may sponsor clinical research on their own products. However, such sponsors often manipulate the research projects' design, implementation, analysis, and dissemination so as to favor their products. While the sponsorship may be disclosed, the extent of the sponsors' control over the project may not be. Furthermore, scientific investigators running such projects may have their own personal financial relationships with the sponsors.

This case apparently shows how a medical academic can both be a paid "key opinion leader," and manipulative clinical researcher. While many examples of key opinion leaders as stealth marketers, and manipulated research involved pharmaceutical companies, this one involves a medical device company. In addition, this research project was not just manipulated, but allegedly falsified.

This variation has at least one other interesting element. Again, from the New York Times,
A former Walter Reed colleague, Dr. David W. Polly Jr., who is also a Medtronic consultant, said he believed that Dr. Kuklo’s data was “strong” and the episode had been overblown.
According to the Center for Public Integrity Paper Trail blog,
A former colleague of Kuklo’s at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Dr. David W. Polly Jr., took even more expensive trips than Kuklo. Polly went on at least 12 Medtronic-sponsored trips costing about $30,000, including a $10,000 trip to Switzerland.

Furthermore, the New York Times reported,
[Senator Charles] Grassley, the ranking Republican [from Iowa] on the Senate Finance Committee, has been investigating since last year whether Medtronic illegally promoted unapproved uses for Infuse. Medtronic, which has denied that accusation, provided him last year with a list of Infuse consultants.

After Dr. Kuklo’s links to Medtronic and Infuse came to light last week in a New York Times article, Mr. Grassley’s staff checked the consultants list and noted that Dr. Kuklo’s name was not on it. In reaction, he wrote a letter to Medtronic’s president and chief executive, William A. Hawkins III, asking why Dr. Kuklo had been omitted. Mr. Grassley entered that letter and the list he had received into The Congressional Record.

'In the future, I hope that instead of not providing me with the name of the physician involved in Infuse, or any other matter that I am looking into, that Medtronic contact me to avoid the situation in which we find ourselves,' Mr. Grassley wrote to Mr. Hawkins.
So, as soon as this case came to light, the spinning of public discussion to favor Medtronic and its key opinion leaders began. Thus, this case also involved stealth policy advocacy. Stealth marketing, clinical research manipulation, and stealth advocacy all in one case, we seem to have hit the jackpot.

The most recent development, again according to the NY Times, is

Dr. Timothy R. Kuklo, a former Army physician accused of falsifying research involving injured soldiers, has taken a leave of absence from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and its affiliated hospitals, the medical school said Friday.

Dr. Kuklo, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery, will not be performing operations, conducting research or teaching students, said a medical school spokeswoman, Joni Westerhouse. The university granted the leave, she said, so that Dr. Kuklo 'can focus on responding to queries about his research and consulting.'
At least his absence was not ascribed to the need to spend more time with his family or pursue other opportunities.

Finally, note that we posted last year that Medtronic had submitted to a corporate integrity agreement after the US Department of Justice accused it of defrauding Medicare in connection with activities by its Kyphon subsidiary. So this case additionally suggests that such agreements have little effect on the actual integrity of corporate leaders.

Hat tip to and see further commentary by Prof Margaret Soltan on the University Diaries blog.

ADDENDUM (24 May, 2009) - see further comments by Prof Soltan on the University Diaries blog.


Anonymous said...

Just a few short weeks age we were informed Scott S. Reuben withdrew 21 studies concerning Cox-2 pain medications. Essentially all of the science behind these medications has been a fraud. ( WSJ Health Blog March 11, 2009, 9:04 AM ET A New Low in Drug Research: 21 Fabricated Studies)

Again this week we see pharma forming a new group to fight comparative testing. (WSJ Health Blog May 20, 2009, 10:04 AM ET PhRMA Tries to Keep ‘Comparative Effectiveness’ in Check) This group has the high minded sounding name of Partnership to Improve Patient Care.

How many sham studies and groups have to be revealed before action is taken to protect patients? Even Sen., Grassley is finding it hard to access accurate information concerning payments to doctors as pharma plays a shell game to hide their actions from the public and government officials.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

No different than the HIT industry paying into a trade group HIMSS that pays into a Harvard "nonprofit" Foundation CITL that "produces" research reports with results favorable to the HIT companies that HIMSS then "distributes to Congress and elsewhere".

Smiling Harvard Professor Blackford Middleton is smiling (in the Washington Post's photo of him) because he "produced" the reports and benefitted by HIMSS largess.

Considering the ubiquitous defects, flaws, and cover-up of HIT adverse events, one should ask, was Congress duped by the made up real truth about HIT devices?

Follow the money in this case.