Thursday, July 16, 2009

Again, Logical Fallacies in Defense of Conflicts of Interest: a Rebuttal to Rothman et al Appears in JACC

Earlier this year, a remarkable commentary in JAMA suggested major reconsideration of the relationships among professional medical associations (PMAs) and health care corporations.(1) Because of the influence of PMAs on clinical care, education, research, and policy, Rothman et al suggested that these organizations sever most of their financial ties to corporations such as pharmaceutical, device, and biotechnology companies. The authors suggested that the only acceptable payments to PMAs from these companies are those for advertising in publications that is clearly labeled as such, and advertising exhibits in meetings, again that is clearly labeled. Furthermore, the authors suggested that people with current or recent (within the last two years) relationships with such corporations ought not to serve as officers or trustees of PMAs, and ought not to serve on program or practice guideline committees. Rothman et al thus suggested that professional medical associations return to their roots, to be advocates for their physician members, and those members’ core values, not marketers of drugs and devices, and promoters of the interests of health care corporations.

The Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) just published the first rebuttal of Rothman et al to appear in a peer-reviewed journal, written by Dr Alfred A Bove, President of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), one of the more influential PMAs.(2) Dr Bove contended that there is nothing wrong with the current relationships among corporations and PMAs, and PMAs should be free to relate to health care corporations any way they want. Dr Bove also asserted that “the assumptions that lead to ... [Rothman and colleagues’] conclusions can be challenged on many fronts.” However, in my humble opinion, Dr Bove supported these contentions with logical fallacies, rather than evidence and logic.

Appeals to Authority, Fear, and Pity

Early on, Dr Bove used a striking set of appeals to authority. (Note that his relevant quotes below appear in italics.)

“There is no comment about trust or virtue as a characteristic of the medical profession.”

“We are not to be bribed by a cheap pen or a free lunch.”

“The authors' assumptions imply that physicians as a group are not responsible people, yet physicians are among the most responsible professionals.”

These appear to be appeals to the traditional authority of the medical profession. Dr Bove simply asserts that physicians are inherently virtuous and deserving of trust, and thus no one could question the virtue of the profession.

He then compounded these appeals to authority with a veiled appeal to fear.

“The authors' assumption that the worst behavior is the average behavior of all physicians insults the profession.”

As noted below, Rothman et al did not make this assumption, so the appeal in turn rests on a straw man argument. This appears to be an appeal to fear in that an “insulted” profession might be expected to take action, legal or otherwise, to avenge the insult. It also could be a form of an appeal to pity, in that the reader might be inclined to pity the poor “insulted” physicians.

Straw Man Arguments

The bulk of the editorial consisted of a string of straw man arguments. A straw man argument propounds a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of his opponent’s argument, and then attacks it, rather than his opponent’s actual argument.

“The sole source for support of PMAs could only come from government or foundation grants....”

Actually, Rothman et al included membership dues, and by implication, meeting registration fees, journal subscription fees etc as acceptable sources of support.

“The article implies that all physicians who receive support from industry will forever be biased to support the products of the related pharmaceutical or device company.”

Actually, Rothman et al seemed to assume that conflicts of interest might affect someone for up to two years, but not forever. Thus, they suggested that board members should be “conflict free for a 2-year period before assuming the position.”

[The Rothman article] “also implies that industry does not work for the best interests of patients or the better [sic] public good, but only for profit.”

Actually, Rothman et al stated “the pharmaceutical and medical device industries make important contributions to medical progress. Their role in the development and testing of new compounds and instruments is essential for the diagnosis and treatment of disease and disability.”

“First, to assume that physicians would not be responsible for providing the best care for their patients after being associated with an industry study or consultation is inappropriate. The authors cited isolated examples of errant physicians who received large sums of money from industry and then promoted their products. They presume that all physicians are represented by these few—that we all have a price.”

Actually, Rothman et al did not discuss any particular cases of “errant physicians.” What Rothman suggested was that gifts, even of “modest value,” can bias decision making, and that the receipt itself of the gift may itself be influential. However, if even modest gifts have some influence, it is logical that large financial transactions might have major influence.

“Society understands that reward drives innovation, so expecting a financial gain from a commercial medical enterprise is not wrong. In fact, it is the only way that new ideas will move from the laboratory to the public good. Using public funds for manufacture and distribution would add an enormous burden to government costs and, based on past experience, would be unproductive.”

Rothman et al were not remotely suggesting nationalizing the drug and device industries.

“If one of us has an idea for a new device and needs industry to help refine its design, fund its development and manufacture, and establish its value by animal and clinical studies, this process should be honored, not condemned. Will the government fund the development of the next new drug? Would the government have funded the development and manufacture of an implantable pacemaker?”

At the most, Rothman et al recommended not allowing physicians who are paid by companies in conjunction with their development work to serve as top leaders, and on certain committees of PMAs. They never broadly “condemned” physicians who work with industry to develop devices.

“Governments have not shown an interest in funding the development of new drugs and devices. Industry raises the funds, takes the risks, and should reap the rewards for its role in creating a better life for our patients.”

Actually, governments have helped development considerably by funding much of the underlying basic science research. Again, Rothman et were not remotely suggesting nationalization of drug development.

Summarizing the Arguments

So Dr Bove ended up by warning that the suggestions Rothman et al made about reducing institutional conflicts of interest affecting professional medical societies, and individual conflicts of interest affecting their leaders would “destroy the best of what we have in our science and industry,” that is, destroy biomedical and clinical science, and lead to nationalization of important forms of medical production. None of that was suggested or implied by Rothman et al. After positing this dire future, Dr Bove then asserted that professional societies ought to be entitled to money from industry limited only by their “professionalism.” Thus, “industry should be able to support unbiased programs aimed at educating physicians and other health care providers about the therapies available for the care of their patients. Professional societies should be able to receive unconditional educational grants to provide up-to-date information to their members on medical therapies.” Furthermore, “the proper relationships should allow us to work with industry and allow our professional societies to receive undesignated funds from industry to foster better patient care.” So, Dr Bove wound up where he started, asserting that doctors and professional societies are inherently virtuous, and thus should be trusted to do whatever they think is right, without any external scrutiny or accountability. Yet he never demonstrated the virtue of the ACC under his leadership, or of PMAs in general, or showed why they should be trusted.

Why did the president of one of the nation’s most important medical associations publicly make such poor arguments to support his organization's current financial relationships with health care corporations? I can only speculate, but there may be some clues found by looking at what is publicly known about the current relationships of the ACC and its leaders to health care corporations.

Publicly Disclosed Relationships Among the ACC and Its Leaders and Health Care Corporations

My sources for these clues were a report on the ACC web-site on its relationships with health care corporations (through 2007), and the form 990s that the ACC is and the highly related ACC Foundation are required to file with the US Internal Revenue Service. (The form 990s are publicly available from GuideStar with a free membership. The ACC form is here, the ACCF, here.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that the ACC gets a large proportion of its income from industry. In 2007, it acknowledged receiving $35,882,095.15 from industry. The largest categories of industry support were "promotional/quality program support," $12,664,650; "charitable contributions," $7,603,639; and "exhibits" at meetings, $7,318,807; and "educational grants," $5,084,600. The total revenues of the ACC (which include the ACC Foundation), were $94,560,000, so that industry support accounted for 38% of total revenue. These figures should be compared to the revenue the society received from membership dues (found on its 990 form), $11,995,056, and the income it claimed from its annual scientific session, $8,400,632. So to put it another way, the ACC got about three times as much money from industry as it got from its members' dues, and almost twice as much money from industry as it got from dues and its annual meeting combined.

So were the suggestions made by Rothman et al to be implemented by the ACC, it would stand to lose at least $28 million a year (given that in 2007, about $1 million of its industry revenue was from advertising , and about $ 7.3 million was from exhibits at meetings.)

The organization's lavish revenues have allowed it to pay its full-time managers very well. In 2007, its CEO received $534,452 in total compensation; its general counsel, about $394,000; and its CFO, about $336,000. It seems obvious that were the organization to foreswear industry revenue, the organization's top full-time managers would be unable to continue to live in the style to which they are now accustomed to.

In addition, the organization's form 990 reveals that it pays its supposedly voluntary officers and some of its trustees substantial amounts as well. In 2007, it paid its president $147,750; its president-elect, $80,000; its two immediate past presidents, $79,500 and $70,000; its vice president (at that time, Dr Bove), $63,751; its treasurer, $32,500; its secretary for the board of governors, $52,500; its board of governors chair-elect, $25,000; its immediate past board of governors chair, $25,000; and some trustees amounts from $1000 to $20,520.

To my knowledge, it is unusual for a professional society to pay salaries to its voluntary officers (as opposed to full-time, hired managers.) However, given that the ACC does, it seems that were the organization to foreswear industry revenue, its officers' personal income might be threatened to some extent.

Finally, Dr Bove has his own personal financial relationships with industry. Some were disclosed because of his role on ACCs Cardiosource editorial board, including "Consultant Fees/Honoraria: Insight Telehealth Inc,""Research/Research Grants: Astella Pharma, INC," and "Royalty Income: Elsevier." In addition, in a 2008 article(3), he disclosed receiving speakers fees from Medical Seminars, Inc, and serving as a consultant to Vasocom Inc. For a 2009 conference, he also disclosed "modest" equity interests in Cardiovascular Therapeutics, and Merck.

So, in summary, it seems that the ACC gets a very substantial portion of its revenue from health care corporations, and that were it to carry out the suggestions of Rothman et al, it would lose much of that revenue. Thus, it is not surprising that ACC leadership would take exception to Rothman and colleagues' point of view. This is not the first time that an ACC president has defeneded the organization's dependence on industry funding (see post here). However, as I said in that post,

My questions are how could a society which requires such a substantial proportion, 38% of funding from commercial sponsors ignore the preferences of the sponsors for particular topics and content areas? How could such a society dare to allow criticism of the sponsors, their products, or their activities? Knowing that the society is dependent on this level of support, could society leaders really hold industry representatives at arms' length? Knowing that industry supplies more than one-third of their salaries, would society staff really keep industry outside of some bureaucratic, but not concrete 'firewall?'

In addition, it now seems the ostensibly voluntary officers of the ACC may have a personal stake in the ACCs receipt of health care corporate funding, since it is the apparent policy of the organization to pay these officers five- and six-figure salaries. Dr Bove did not disclose this apparent conflict of interest, nor did he disclose his other personal financial relationships with industry. As we have noted before, people with conflicts of interest tend to have trouble making coherent, logical and evidence-based arguments for positions related to their conflicts. As Joe Collier wrote in the BMJ, "people who have conflicts of interest often find giving clear advice (or opinions) particularly difficult. "(4)

In any case, a previous ACC president wrote about the importance of "disclosure" and "transparency" in dealing with conflicts of interest. Whether disclosure of conflicts is sufficient to manage them, at least Dr Bove could have done the courtesy of disclosing that he is actually a salaried employee of the ACC, and disclosing his personal financial relationships with industry so that readers could try to evaluate how these financial entanglements might have affected what he wrote.


In conclusion, the first published rebuttal of Rothman and colleagues' suggestions for ensuring the independence of professional medical associations from outside vested interests was not based on evidence, but on logical fallacies rather than clear reasoning, and failed to disclose its authors' relevant financial relationships. We will see if anyone can make a better attempt.

ADDENDUM (17 July, 2009) - see additional comments by Dr Howard Brody on the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma blog.

ADDENDUM (22 July, 2009) - see this post on the Cardiobrief blog, which alludes to the post above, but also discusses an interesting response by the CEO of the ACC to the Rothman paper, and adds original commentary on larger issues.


1. Rothman DJ, McDonald WJ, Berkowitz CD et al. Professional medical associations and their relationships with industry. JAMA 2009; 301: 1367-1372. (Link
2. Bove AA. President's page: relations with industry: thoughts on claims of a broken system. J Am Coll Cardiol 2009; 54: 177-179. (Link
3. Somers VK, White DP, Amin R et al. Sleep apnea and cardiovascular disease: an American Heart Association/ American College of Cardiology Foundation scientific statement from the American Heart Association Council for High Blood Pressure Research Professional Education Committee, Council on Clinical Cardiology, Stroke Council, and Council on Cardiovascular Nursing. Circulation 2008; 118: 1080-1111. (Link
4. Collier J. The price of independence. Br Med J 2006; 332: 1447-9. (Link here.)


InformaticsMD said...

Why did the president of one of the nation’s most important medical associations publicly make such poor arguments to support his organization's current financial relationships with health care corporations?

Never underestimate the arrogance of privilege, and simple stupidity.

I fear those who could write and peer review such a faulty argument could actually understand the elements of logical argumentation, and the concepts and specifics of logical fallacy.

Of course, this raises questions about their intellectual qualifications to hold leadership roles in biomedicine, a scientific field.

-- SS

InformaticsMD said...

The above comment should say "I fear those who could write and peer review such a faulty argument may not actually understand the elements of logical argumentation, and the concepts and specifics of logical fallacy."

-- SS

Anonymous said...

WOW! My wife is the past president of a nationally recognized nonprofit organization staffed with all volunteers, including some from industry. They do a yearly conference with 400 + attending, have an active web presence, and yet manage to pay nobody, and accept no money outside conference fees and dues.

They manage to do this all on the same amount as the general counsels compensation.

While I understand about ramping up and size and all that, these sums are simply mind boggling. Claiming no CFI is like this group standing at a large fire with a gas can, book of matches and saying: Fire, what fire?

Steve Lucas

Doug Bremner said...

Nice job. 35 million a year to the ACC is simply amazing.