Now this issue has made it to the big time. New York Times reporter Duff Wilson, wrote in the Times' Prescriptions Blog
The University of Michigan medical school became the first in the nation last month to say it would refuse any funding from drug companies for its continuing medical education classes. The decision could cost it as much as $1 million a year, but it was worth it, the medical school dean said, for education to be free from potential bias.
At the same time, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the entire University of Michigan, sits on the board of directors for the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. Last year, the company paid her $229,978 — roughly half in stock and half in cash — for attending a limited number of meetings, corporate filings show.
Conflict of interest? Conflict of policies? If the med school and mere professors could be tainted by drug money, what about the university president?
She says no. Responding to questions on Ms. Coleman’s behalf Monday, Kelly E. Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the university, said the president satisfied the policy by disclosing her outside work. Ms. Coleman has never had to recuse herself from any discussion or action at the university because medical purchasing and investment decisions are so remote from her, Ms. Cunningham said.
'The same is true at J&J,' she added. 'There has never been a discussion or decision at the board level that involved something related to the UM. But, of course, if there were, she would recuse herself.'
The story was picked up by the Detroit Free Press, which reiterated the official line that President Coleman's role on the Johnson and Johnson board did not pose a conflict:
A student group at the University of Michigan is calling on President Mary Sue Coleman to resign from her seat on the Johnson & Johnson board of directors, saying it's a conflict of interest.
But Coleman has no plans to resign, and university officials say her role on the board is not in conflict with university operations. Last year, she earned nearly $230,000 for her board duties. Coleman's U-M salary is about $550,000.
'It's essential that U-M have a voice and interact with the business world,' said Rick Fitzgerald, a U-M spokesman. 'She thinks it's her duty to understand what the commercial world is doing.'
So, as I did last time, let us turn to the Institute of Medicine's definition of conflict of interest (in a health care context) found in its report, Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice.
Conflicts of interest are defined as circumstances that create a risk that professional judgments or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest. Primary interests include promoting and protecting the integrity of research, the quality of medical education, and the welfare of patients. Secondary interests include not only financial interests....
I asserted then that President Coleman has a conflict of interest. Her primary interests as President of a university are to uphold the university's academic mission, and as President of a university that includes a medical school, a school of public health, and an academic medical center, also to uphold the integrity of patient care and public health practice. Her secondary interest as a member of the board of directors of a public, for-profit corporation is her fiduciary duty to that corporation and its stockholders, which means she must "demonstrate unyielding loyalty to the company's shareholders" [Per Monks RAG, Minow N. Corporate Governance, 3rd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. P.200.] Such unyielding loyalty to the shareholders of a pharmaceutical and medical device company clearly creates a risk of influencing judgments or actions that could affect the corporations' sales or operations, economic or health policy, or the general environment in which it operates. Many of the judgments of or actions performed by the leader of a medical school, public health school, and academic medical center could so so, and are thus at risk of being so unduly influenced.
As the IOM report said, though,
a judgment that someone has a conflict of interest does not imply that the person is unethical. Such judgments assume only that some situations are generally recognized to pose an unacceptable risk that decisions may be unduly influenced by considerations that should be irrelevant.
However, note that the sorts of decisions that may be influenced by a conflict of interest go beyond just those that involve the specific secondary interest causing the conflict. So the University spokesperson's statement that the president would recuse herself from any decision at the university that directly involved Johnson and Johnson, but that no such decision has ever been necessary, missed the point.
Meanwhile, the university's insistence that the president's part-time position at Johnson and Johnson is justified by the need to "have a voice and interact with the business world" rings hollow. There are many ways a president could do that which do not involve getting corporate pay (and for "unyielding loyalty"). It rings especially hollow at a university that has identified corporate funding for continuing medical education as an unacceptably bad conflict of interest.
But then again, conflicts of interest are known to create confused thinking, and such confused thinking is likely to be prevalent at an institution that has one set of rules for the little people, and another for the top leaders.
Maybe this story in the New York Times will lead to some discussion about whether it is good for academic medical institutions to tolerate this previously "new species of conflict of interest" (as we termed it in 2006).