Saturday, April 30, 2011

CPOE Cesspool

An accomplished physician who read my post on CPOE at Memorial Sloan Kettering causing medical errors and near misses, and lack of FD&C Act regulation of health IT medical devices, relates the following:

So I want to stop medications on a patient. The device only allows me to stop one at a time, and for each one, it requires me to type in a reason.

Then, I get another pop up screen to enter my password.

Six clicks and two manual entries to stop an aspirin, not counting the click to get to the med list. [What a valuable use of physician time! - ed.]

Also, I have found that when I want an order for something that is labor intensive to enter, and I ask house staff [trainees - ed.] to do it, I get balking as to why I want that treatment or infusion.

The arguments, I have found, are not really about the treatment. They are about their avoiding the pain in the ass of having to deal with the user unfriendly screens for that order.

The doctors all put up with this.

Yet for some reason this waste of valuable clinician time due
to antediluvian HIT design, and even wild goose chases for critical medications such as in my Apr. 5, 2011 post "Mission Hostile Health IT Obstructs Physicians From Ordering Life Saving Drugs In Critical Emergency", are considered "progress" in medicine.

World class medical centers such as Sloan Kettering consider CPOE a "critical vulnerability" towards near misses and outright medical errors.

Still, this IT toxicity is considered "progress" right up to our Department of HHS and POTUS.


-- SS

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Quack Remedy of Commercialization

Paul Krugman has a recent column, "Patients Are Not Consumers." He concludes the column by saying:
The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors are just “providers” selling services to health care “consumers” — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values.
I like Krugman’s having the good common sense to realize that medical care is NOT all or only about money – and that we are in trouble if we think it is. The reduction of EVERYTHING to money is a key driver, I think, in making corruption invisible to people. As Krugman observes:
Now politicians and supposed reformers talk about the act of receiving care as if it were no different from a commercial transaction, like buying a car — and their only complaint is that it isn’t commercial enough. What has gone wrong with us?
James Kwak at the Baseline Scenario details research which shows that the more people think about money, the less admirably they act. As well, taking economics classes may have a negative effect on behavior:

Robert Frank, Thomas Gilovich, and Dennis Regan wrote two papers on this back in the 1990s that most of the professional economists out there already know. In one of their experiments, they asked undergraduates at the beginning and end of the semester several questions such as whether or not they would return $100 lost by a stranger at the end of the semester. They found that the proportion of students who gave more dishonest answers at the end of the semester than at the beginning was highest for students who took introductory micro from the mainstream economist, lower for students who took introductory micro from the developmental economist, and lowest for students who took introductory astronomy.

If there’s an effect here, I don’t think the mechanism is that economics makes you a bad person. Instead, it changes your expectations about what the rest of the world is like. If you are an altruistic person and someone teaches you that (a) most people are self-interested and (b) the world would be better if everyone behaved in a self-interested way, that is likely to make you behave in a less altruistic way.

I was really struck by Krugman’s words that: “and their only complaint is that [medicine] isn’t commercial enough.” Somehow, more commercialization has become the always-prescribed panacea to everything. The same universal nostrum is also prescribed for education. Recently in Texas, there has been a lot of emphasis in education in whether professors and research are on balance money-making or money-losing for their universities.

Commercialization is not only no panacea – it is often not a remedy at all, like other quack prescriptions. Fortunately, many good people within organizations that pay lip service to money as the only value do NOT act that way and do subvert their corrupt leadership. But we also need to challenge the frameworks that people use when they talk – very unrealistically – as though human beings were, above all, “consumers.”

In reality, life is NOT all about money – and we get in trouble when we act or think as though it is.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

RUCing About - Conflicts of Interest Affecting the Members of the RBRVS Update Committee

Since 2007, we have been writing about the secretive RUC (RBRVS Update Committee), the private AMA committee that somehow has managed to get effective control over how Medicare pays physicians. The RUC has been accused of setting up incentives that strongly favor invasive, high technology procedures while disfavoring primary care and other "cognitive medicine." Despite the central role of (perverse) incentives in raising health care costs while limiting access and degrading quality, there was surprisingly little discussion about the pivotal role played by the RUC until the formation of the "Replace the RUC" movement (see post here). 

Recently, the leaders of Replace the RUC scored a journalistic coup by putting the current list of RUC members publicly on-line.  As we have discussed, previously the membership of this committee was kept very obscure, although the committee argued it was not exactly secret. 

Some Google searching suggests one possible reason that the RUC was in no hurry to disclose its own membership.  It appears that many of the RUC members have significant conflicts of interest with respect to their roles as de facto setters of the rates at which physicians are paid by the government.

The RUC Members and Their Financial Relationships

Below is the list of the current RUC membership (from this link), and relevant conflicts of interest obtained by Google searching.  Note that for each member, I first give the name, affiliation relevant to the RUC, location, and first year of membership as provided by the link above.  Then I list relevant financial relationships that appear to present conflicts of interest.

- Barbara Levy, MD

Chair, RVS Update Committee
Federal Way, WA 2000

Consultant/Advisory Boards: Conceptus; AMS; Covidien; Halt Medical; Gynesonics; Idoman Medical (hysteroscopic surgery and sterilization, endometrial ablation, electrosurgery, vaginal hysterectomy) per UptoDate

- Bibb Allen, Jr., MD
American College of Radiology (ACR)
Birmingham, AL 2006

- Michael D. Bishop, MD
American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP)
Bloomington, IN 2003

- James Blankenship, MD
American College of Cardiology (ACC)
Danville, PA 2000

Lecture fees from Sanofi-Aventis per New England Journal of Medicine

- Robert Dale Blasier, MD
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)
Little Rock, AK 2008

- Joel Bradley, MD
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
Brentwood, TN 2008

Medical Director, Americhoice by UnitedHealthcare, per AAP conference brochure

- Ronald Burd, MD
American Psychiatric Association (APA)
Fargo, ND 2006

- William F. Gee, MD
American Urological Association (AUA)
Lexington, KY 2010

Member, Physician Advisory Board, Aetna per Aetna

- John O. Gage, MD
American College of Surgeons (ACS)
Pensacola, FL 1991

- David F. Hitzeman, DO
American Osteopathic Association (AOA)
Tulsa, OK 1996

- Peter A. Hollmann, MD
CPT Editorial Panel (AMA/CPT)
Providence, RI 2003

Medical Director, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island, per RI Medical Society

- Charles F. Koopmann, Jr., MD
American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS)
Ann Arbor, MI 1996

- Robert Kossmann, MD
Renal Physicians Association (RPA)
Santa Fe, NM 2009

Member of Advanced Renal Technologies Advisory Board, Network 15 Medical Advisory Board, Baxter Home Dialysis Advisory Board, Fresenius Medical Advisory Board per Renal Physicians Association

- Walter Larimore, MD
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)
Colorado Springs, CO 2009

- Brenda Lewis, DO
American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA)
Cleveland, OH 2009

- J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD
American College of Physicians (ACP)
Atlanta, GA 1994

Member, Physician Advisory Board, Aetna per Aetna

- Scott Manaker, MD, PhD
American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP)
Philadelphia, PA 2010

Consultant to Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson. Owns stock in Neose Technologies, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Rohm and Haas per Chest

- Bill Moran, MD
Practice Expense Review Committee
Oklahoma City, OK 2000

- Guy Orangio, MD
American Society of Colon & Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS)
Atlanta, GA 2009

- Gregory Przybylski, MD
American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS)
Edison, NJ 2001

Stock Ownership: United Healthcare (300 shares);  ...  Scientific Advisory Board: United Health Group (B, Spine Advisory Board) per NASS meeting

- Marc Raphaelson, MD
American Academy of Neurology (AAN)
Leesburg, VA 2009

personal compensation for activities with Jazz Pharmaceuticals and Medtronics as a speakers bureau member or consultant per AAN

- Sandra Reed, MD
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
Thomasville, GA 2009

GlaxoSmithKline Consulting, $1750 in 2009, $1500 in 2010 per ProPublica Dollars for Docs search through here

- Daniel Mark Siegel, MD
American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)
Brooklyn, NY 2003

Vivacare Dermatology Advisory Board, 2006 – present. Photomedex Scientific Advisory Board, 2006-present, Ad Hoc consultant to ClickDiagnostics, per Encite CV
DermFirst-Shareholder, Logical Image – Consultant, Vivacare - Consultant per MOHS Surgery

- Lloyd S. Smith, DPM
Health Care Professionals Advisory Committee
Bethesda, MD 2007

- Peter Smith, MD
Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS)
Durham, NC 2006

Eli Lilly, Consulting, $1500 in 2009, $1990 in 2010 per Pro Publica Dollars for Docs search through here
Advisor or consultant to Bayer per Medscape

- Susan Spires, MD
College of American Pathologists (CAP)
Lexington, KY 2007

- Arthur Traugott, MD
American Medical Association (AMA)
Champaign, IL 2006

- James Waldorf, MD
American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS)
Jacksonville, FL 2008

- George Williams, MD
American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO)
Royal Oak, MI 2009

Advisory Team, RetroSense Therapeutics
Shareholder and consultant for ThromboGenics Ltd. and holds intellectual property on the use of plasmin per Review of Opthamology
Alcon Laboratories, consultant, lecturer; Allergan, consultant, lecturer; Macusight, consultant, equity owner; Neurotech, consultant; Nu-Vue Technologies, equity owner, patent/ royalties; OMIC- Ophthalmic Mutual Insurance Company, employee; Optimedica, consultant, equity owner; Thrombogenics, consultant, equity owner per AAO meeting
Pfizer, “Professional Advising,” $5534 in 2009 per Pro Publica Dollars for Docs search through here


There you have it.  A substantial proportion, almost half, 14 of 29 members of the RUC have financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, device companies, companies that directly provide health care, and health care insurance companies. 

As we have noted in our previous discussions of the RUC, that committee has been accused of being the de facto controller of how the US government pays physicians.  In that role, it has been accused of favoring procedural care rather than cognitive or primary care by increasing the relative financial incentives for the former over the latter.  This may be one of the most important reasons for the expensive, high-technology, procedural-heavy style of care in the US, which has likely been a major driver for increasing costs, declining access and stagnant quality.

It seemed obvious that a committee dominated by a majority of physicians who perform procedures would tend to favor bigger financial incentives for procedures.  But now it appears the committee also includes a substantial number of people who work part-time or have ownership interests in companies that also stand to benefit from increasing use of procedures.  Procedures drive increased consumption of drugs, supplies and devices, and lead to larger revenue for hospitals and clinics.  Thus these financial relationships could reasonably be suspected of even further distorting the committee's decision-making in favor of procedures.

I was surprised how many RUC members have financial ties to health care insurance companies.  Such companies are not usually thought of as beneficiaries of high-technology, procedural care.  However, if one conceives of their revenue as a percentage of health care costs, perhaps they are.  Furthermore, one can only wonder if the links between the RUC and health care insurance companies have anything to do with how such companies have apparently unquestioningly adapted the RBRVS system controlled by the RUC?

The prevalence of conflicts of interest among RUC members highlight the need for a more accountable, transparent and honest system to manage how the government pays physicians, and a need for more transparency and accountability in the relationship among the government, health care insurance, and physicians.

 As we have previously noted,  there are still many unanswered questions about the RUC:

- How did the government come to fix the payments physicians receive? Government price-fixing has not been popular in the US, yet this has caused no outcry.
- Why is the process by which they are fixed allowed to be so opaque and unaccountable? Why are there no public hearings on the updates, and why is there no input from practicing physicians or organizations other than those related to the RUC?
- How did the RUC become de facto in charge of this process?
- Why does the AMA [keep the membership of the RUC so opaque, and] give no input into the RUC process to its general membership?
- Why is the RUC membership so dominated by procedural specialists? Why were primary care physicians, who made up at least a sizable minority of physicians when the update process was started, not represented according to their numbers?
- Why has there been so little discussion of the RUC and its responsibility for an extremely expensive health care system dominated by high-technology, expensive, risky and invasive procedures?

Stay tuned, maybe these will be answered in our life-times....

Monday, April 25, 2011

Will a Pharmaceutical CEO Finally Be Held Accountable for Misbehavior on His Watch?

It appears there may be a move afoot to have the leader of a large health organization suffer some negative consequences for the misbehavior of his organization.  As reported by the St Louis Post-Dispatch,
For the past 34 years, Howard Solomon has presided over Forest Laboratories Inc., a midsize pharmaceutical company that runs its national sales operations from Earth City.

Solomon, 83, took home $8.3 million last year as the company's chairman, president and chief executive officer. But his company's marketing arm also fell into trouble, pleading guilty to federal charges that its sales force illegally marketed the antidepressants Celexa and Lexapro to children and adolescents, even though these drugs had not been approved for minors.

Now, the federal Department of Health and Human Services is attempting to oust Solomon from his job. According to the company, the agency's Office of Inspector General advised Solomon, a Yale Law School alum, last week that it planned to exclude him from doing any business with federal Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The move — similar to the government's exclusion of KV Pharmaceutical's former chairman, Marc Hermelin — is part of a new effort by regulators to use this enforcement tactic to root out 'untrustworthy individuals' who knew or should have known that health care fraud was being committed on their watch.

This appears to be big news. As we have discussed ad infinitum, there has been a parade of legal settlements by large health care organizations of charges of various kinds of wrong-doing. Some of these settlements have involved apparently large monetary penalties. However, the settlements have almost never been accompanied by any negative consequences for the people who authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior.

The concern all along has been that monetary settlements may just be regarded as a cost of doing business, and as long as misbehavior is lucrative, such settlements have no deterrent effect. In fact, the current practice seemed to grant impunity to corporate leaders. Actually barring a corporate executive from Medicare, which could result in the collapse of his company were he or she not to resign, would be a significant step towards accountability.

Note that the St Louis Post-Dispatch article documented the rarity of imposing any negative consequences on corporate health care executives:
Prosecutors have long been criticized for seldom filing charges against individuals associated with drug companies that are convicted of criminal conduct. Huge fines in recent years against Pfizer Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co., for example, did not stop their chief executives from continuing in their jobs.

Solomon, who joined the company in 1977, would become the second drug company executive barred from doing business with federal health care programs under a specific provision of the law that authorizes the exclusion of individuals who have not been convicted of a crime.

In October, the agency's Office of Inspector General posted 'guidance' saying that, when there is evidence that an owner/operator or company officer "knew or should have known" of his organization's criminal conduct, the agency 'will operate with a presumption in favor of exclusion.'

Hermelin, an owner/operator of KV Pharmaceutical, was excluded in November from federal health care programs for 20 years — and stepped down from the company's board of directors. He pleaded guilty last month to two criminal misdemeanors connected with his firm's shipment of oversized morphine tablets, and was sentenced to 30 days in the County Jail.

In addition, three executives of the Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company Pardue Frederick were excluded for 15 years from federal health programs under a different provision of the law, after their guilty pleas in 2007 in connection with the misbranding of the painkiller OxyContin.
Meanwhile, it seems that health care corporate CEOs can find academics who will defend their actions no matter what.  It was instructive to see one such defense of Solomon described in the Post-Dispatch article:
Jackson Nickerson, a professor of organization and strategy at Washington University's Olin Business School, said the agency's 'underlying model' for exclusion appeared to be an example of over-regulation.

'It's predicated on the assumption that if a company has done something wrong, it must mean the senior executives have done something wrong,' he said. 'You are branded as being unethical if a subordinate makes a decision that turns out to be a bad one.'

Nickerson said that to encourage innovation, company executives needed to delegate certain responsibilities to employees lower down in the organization. 'The dilemma is, how do you engage in global competition and decentralize, while at the same time be held accountable as an individual leader?'

It does seem that it would be hard for top corporate executives to keep their eyes on the actions of all subordinates. On the other hand, it also seems that top corporate executives have justified their out-sized compensation by taking personal credit for everything good that happens to their organizations. If they want such credit, why should they escape responsibility when some actions go wrong?

Note that Prof Nickerson played the "innovation" card. A common justification for many corporate health care practices is that they enable innovation. This argument is thrown around so often I begin to suspect it comes from corporate public relations' talking points. (See this post about the development of such talking points.) Of course, the more a corporation is truly decentralized to support innovation, the less it can argue that the top executives deserve huge salaries because of their close involvement in everything that goes on at that corporation.

Furthermore, while Forest Laboratories' previous marketing practices might have been innovative, that did not make them ethical. As we noted in an earlier post, the company was accused of marketing anti-depressants to children when they had only previously been approved for adults. Their marketing tactics allegedly included suppressing negative studies, and paying physicians to prescribe the drugs. The company pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to the FDA during a plant inspection, and to misdemeanor charges of misbranding and distributing an unapproved drug contrary to an FDA directive.

In addition, an earlier post summarized memos made public by a congressional investigation about Forest Laboratories' marketing of Lexapro. These included coopting medical education, "key opinion leaders," and medical associations for marketing purposes:
- The marketing plan from the marketing department paid for medical education as a "promotional objective," that is, to market, not to educate.
- Thought leaders and consultants were again paid by marketing to market, and sometimes to provide opinions about "promotional strategies" and "commercial development."
- Medical associations are funded by marketing "for commercial and policy activities."

So the facts in the Forest Laboratories case make protests that holding corporate leaders accountable for misbehavior on their watches will stifle innovation seem disingenuous. Furthermore, it makes no sense to pay top corporate leaders outrageous amounts for everything good that happens on their watch without similarly holding them accountable for everything bad that happens then.

If the US government is really going to hold one corporate leader responsible for misbehavior by his subordinates on his watch, that would be a step forward.  As we have said again and again, we will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Real health care reform needs to make health care leaders accountable, and especially accountable for the bad behavior that helped make them rich.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Henry Ford Health System Decides Meaningful Use Not That Meaningful

The CMIO for inpatient services for Henry Ford Health System discusses the Michigan system's decision to hold off on applying for meaningful use funding in 2011, and what that means for its long-term vision of connecting clinical goals with IT support. April 15, 2011. Podcast running time: 3:58 (link to podcast).


“The clinician experience of delivering care has never been more complicated. Implementation and adoption of these Electronic Health Records seems to be to many people an end in itself—and that’s unfortunate.

The implementation and adoption of EHR is a means to an end and one of those ends is better patient care and another one is clinician efficiency or better and more effective care. And that part feels to me that it gets lower priority and gets overlooked for the sake of adoption and implementation especially now with the federal requirements coming on.

Now we must adopt, adopt, adopt. And the clinician experience is left behind. The complexity of being a physician is almost overwhelming both in the hospital and clinic setting and that’s one of my great concerns.”

- John Frownfelter, MD CMIO, Henry Ford Health System

Health IT in its present poorly usable form only makes being a clinician more overwhelming. As I wrote at "Meaningful Use Final Rule", meaningful use initiatives before "meaningful usability" has been achieved have put the cart before the horse.

Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line, would probably have approved. An assembly line is appropriate for building identical widgets, but inappropriate for the implementation of health IT in the extremely complex, poorly bounded, conflicted, highly variable, uncertain, high-tempo work domain of hospitals, especially if the implementation is just for implementation's sake.

-- SS

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Abbott Laboratories Settles, Again

In 2007, we discussed a scheme that Abbott Laboratories seemed to be using to boost the price of Kaletra, a combination of two protease inhibitors it markets to treat HIV and AIDS. Kaletra is a combination of rinoavir (Norvir, sold by Abbott as a single drug), and leponavir. Kaletra was apparently losing sales to the combination of Norvir with Reyataz (atazanavir), made by Bristol-Myers-Squibb. So Abbott increased the price of Norvir by 400%.

As reported so far only by Bloomberg, Abbott just settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that its price hike for Norvir was anti-competitive.
Abbott Laboratories agreed to pay $52 million to resolve claims by direct drug buyers that it tried to harm competition when it quadrupled the price of its HIV medicine Norvir in 2003.

The settlement, which is subject to court approval, would resolve a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Abbott customers that purchased Norvir, a boosting agent for other HIV drugs, and a second medicine Kaletra, which includes Norvir, according to an April 8 filing in federal court in Oakland, California. Abbott denied wrongdoing, according to the accord.

Abbott increased the wholesale price of a Norvir capsule containing 100 milligrams to $8.57 from $1.71, the Abbott Park, Illinois-based company said in court documents. GlaxoSmithKline Plc and drug retailers and distributors sued, claiming other drugmakers that used Norvir in their medicines couldn’t compete on price with Kaletra, and the price increase penalized drug customers that wanted to buy medicines that competed with Kaletra.

Note that, as we discussed here, this is the third significant settlement by Abbott in the last six months. In December, 2010, the company settled claims that it defrauded Medicare and Medicaid for $421 million, and claims that a subsidiary paid kickbacks to doctors to sell its products for $41 million. For other discussion of Abbott's recent misbehavior, look here.

So while we were discussing other issues, the parade of legal settlements continued. It is beginning to seem like every major pharmaceutical/ device/ and biotechnology company has settled or pleaded guilty to multiple allegations of significantly bad behavior in the last few years. This suggests how bad the leadership of most of these companies has become.

Nonetheless, in the current case, like nearly all others, the penalties were paid by the companies themselves, not the people who authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior. We and others have commented repeatedly that the resulting relative impunity of leaders of health care organizations will hardly deter future bad behavior. (Note that this impunity seems similar to that employed by leaders of finance after the global financial collapse/ Great Recession.) Not only do the leaders not pay penalties, but they continue to become hugely rich at the expense of their companies. For example, Abbott CEO Miles D White enjoyed total compensation of $25,564,283 in 2010, down only slightly from the 26,213,996 he received in 2009, according to the 2011 Abbott proxy statement (available here). Threats by government officials to start to employ the "Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine," (available since 1943) to hold individuals accountable for health care organizations' misdeeds so far appear to be empty (see this post).

So to repeat Cassandra-like,  we will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Real health care reform needs to make health care leaders accountable, and especially accountable for the bad behavior that helped make them rich.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Khadafy's Academic Mercenaries' Health Care Connections

We just discussed Henry Kissinger as an early example of the intellectual mercenary, and recent striking examples of academic mercenaries,particularly the Harvard University-derived Monitor Group's academically disguised public relations work for Libyan tyrant Moammar Khadafy.

We concluded that academic mercenaries help foster the corporate culture in which health care is now immersed.  However, it also appears they may have direct influence on health care. 

Monitor Group Leadership

Consider for example the main figure in the Monitor Group - Khadafy scandal.  According to a Boston Globe article, Michael Porter developed the Monitor-Khadafy connection:
Monitor’s work in Libya began when Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor who is among the country’s top theorists on management strategies, received a call from Saif Khadafy around 2001, according to Porter. Saif, a Western-leaning doctoral student who US officials hoped would become the next leader of Libya, asked for his expertise to help change Libya’s battered, Soviet-style economy.
(Saif, of course, later sided with his father in brutally putting down anti-government protesters.)

According to his official Harvard biography, Michael Porter also has a big interest in health care:
Since 2001, Professor Porter has devoted considerable attention to competition in the health care system, with a focus on improving health care delivery. His work with Professor Elizabeth Teisberg, including the book Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Competition on Results (Harvard Business School Press, 2006), is influencing thinking and practice not only in the United States but numerous other countries.
In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine published his four-page commentary on "value-based" health care reform in 2009 [Porter ME. A strategy for health care reform - toward a value-based system. N Engl J Med 2009; 361: 109-112. Link here.]

The journal required that he disclose financial relationships with other health care organizations, including
receiving lecture fees from the American Surgical Association, the American Medical Group Association, the World Health Care Congress, Hoag Hospital, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, receiving director's fees from Thermo Fisher Scientific, and having an equity interest in Thermo Fisher Scientific, Genzyme, Zoll Medical, Merck, and Pfizer.
The Boston Globe article identified two more Monitor leaders who helped develop the Libyan connection:
Porter brought in Monitor, a firm he had helped found, along with other associates including former Harvard professors Mark Fuller, who is now the firm’s chairman, and Joseph Fuller, who works at Monitor and also collaborates on research with some Harvard professors.

Mark Fuller, the current CEO of the Monitor Group, who wrote to the Libyan government proposing to counter its "deficit of positive public relations" as described by Mother Jones, per the New Profit Inc web-site is:
a Member of Harvard University's Major Gifts Steering Committee, a Member of the [Harvard] Board of Overseers' Committee on University Resources,...
Joseph Fuller was an unsuccesful candidate for the Harvard Board of Overseers in 2010. His biography for that candidacy also stated:
He and his wife, Ruthanne Schwartz Fuller, MBA ’83, served on the HBS Board of Dean’s Advisors and Joe on the Harvard College Fund and the FAS Undergraduate Education Planning Committee.

So of the three Monitor Group leaders who developed the stealth public relations campaign for Khadafy, the leader who set up the relationship with Libya has a professed interest in health care, published on health policy in a prominent journal, and has financial ties to multiple health care organizations. The two others have leadership roles within their own university which are likely to affect its medical and health care spheres

Monitor's Hired Academics

Furthermore, of the seven outside academics the Monitor Group paid to help promote the Khadafy regime per the Mother Jones article, three had health care connections. 

Richard Perle is on the board of directors of New Health Sciences Inc, a biotechnology company.

In 2008, Francis Fukuyama was elected a member of the Board of Trustees of the Rand Corporation, which does substantial health care research.

Benjamin Barber's own biography claims he has been on the National Advisory Board of American Health Decision Inc since 1992.


As we noted before, severe problems with the leadership and governance of health care seem not to be only due to specific deficiencies within health care, but may also be influenced by larger societal problems.  The leadership of many organizations seems to have been given over to self-serving opportunists with no fixed values or loyalties. David Halberstam described Henry Kissinger as a prototype of these "wildly ambitious agents of opportunity," also as:
the free agent—the professional political player who brilliantly manipulated the press, played both sides of issues, and put his own agenda ahead of all others.

We discussed examples of such free agents who cloaked themselves in the mantles of two formerly prestigious academic institutions, Columbia and Harvard Universities. Both universities have medical schools, teaching hospitals, and considerable influence within medicine and health care. So it seems likely that the free agency of faculty outside of medicine and health care could influence how things are done within medicine and health care. Furthermore, we have demonstrated that many free agents whose focus may not primarily be on health care and medicine may have wide-ranging activities including some that directly affect medicine and health care.

The pervasive nature of free agents, or agents of opportunity within academia, government, and the rest of society shows why it has been so hard to challenge the threats to core values created by conflicts of interest in medicine and health care. The conflicted already hold much of the power within the larger society in which medicine and health care operate. They are unlikely to favor restrictions on their brother and sister free agents within the medical and health care sector.

So our effort to address concentration and abuse of power in health care, and promote accountability, integrity, honesty, and ethics in health care leadership and governance must necessarily take into account these issues in society at large. The bad news is that the problems are much bigger than we first imagined. The good news is that we have potential allies facing similar problems throughout the world.

But it is now really clear that to truly reform health care, we must improve the accountability, integrity, honesty and ethics of not only health care leadership and governance, but of all organizational leadership and governance. That should keep us busy for a while.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Henry Kissinger, Iceland's Promoter, Khadafy's Apologists, and the Rise of the Academic Mercenary

In which we discuss how medical academic mercenaries (like the key opinion leaders paid to promote drugs and devices cloaked in their academic and professional credentials) now appear to be just part of a larger problem.
Henry Kissinger

Almost 17 years ago, an article by David Halberstam in Vanity Fair(1) should have warned us of the rise of the academic and intellectual mercenary.  However, back in those go-go years of the new gilded age, most of us were not listening. 

Halberstam focused on Henry Kissinger, once a protege of New York Governor and then US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who became the infamous President Nixon's National Security Advisor, then Secretary of State:
Kissinger’s capacity to be all things to all campaigns—an overt Rockefeller man, a semi-overt Humphrey man, and a covert Nixon man—reflects the emergence of the rootless operator in the modern superstate. Kissinger was the first—though there were others to follow—of the wildly ambitious agents of opportunity set loose in the wilds of Washington and other capitals. They are interchangeable men, singular in their ambitions, unhampered by traditional loyalties or affiliations. They are men so cool and detached in their geopolitical views that they sometimes seem to be part of a new international elite, readily transferable to the governments of allies and adversaries alike.

Two recent dramatic stories show how prevalent academic mercenaries, another breed of "rootless operators," or "wildly ambitious agents of opportunity," have become.

Promoting Iceland: Columbia Professors' "Inside Job"

The Academy Award winning documentary film, "Inside Job," suggested that one cause of the Great Recession was the wrong-headed deregulation of the financial industry deceptively promoted by academics who failed to disclose they were being paid by those who stood to benefit from deregulation.  (See our post here.)

Reconsideration of the roles of two of the academics cited in the film who are faculty at Columbia University shed more light on how public policy was influenced by academics hired to do public relations. The Columbia Spectator just published a three- part series on the local controversy with global implications.

At least a few Columbia faculty realized that it did not look good for their colleagues to do public relations while pretending they were delivering disinterested academic opinions:
[Columbia Economics Department Chair Michael] Riordan added that it is important that Columbia protect its reputation and the public’s trust in its professors’ expert opinions.

'What does the university stand for but if not for the quality of the ideas that come out of that university?' he asked. (2)

Teachers College professor Kathleen O’Connell ... called the film 'appalling' and said that 'the Columbia professors were even more appalling.' She said she was especially surprised considering Hubbard and Mishkin have both had high-ranking government jobs—Hubbard was at one time a top economic adviser to former President George W. Bush, and Mishkin was a governor of the Federal Reserve.

'I was shocked at the lack of ethics that they displayed. They are in really powerful positions—they have been in powerful positions in the Federal Reserve and the President’s economic advisors,' O’Connell said.(3)

However, there was much resistance to change. Just as we have seen in arguments about conflicts of interest affecting medical faculty, there were those who denied that being paid to consult could affect any faculty member's thinking about the source of the payment:
But some, including Business School professor and University Senator Frank Lichtenberg, oppose the disclosure of consulting to the University. Lichtenberg said that many factors besides money can influence professors’ academic opinions.

'There are lots of other sources of bias and non-neutrality in academia anyway,' Lichtenberg said. 'People often have predispositions for or against different hypotheses, and unfortunately, those sometimes prevail.'

Some professors question whether paid consulting positions influence researchers at all. Business School professor Bruce Greenwald said that the economists featured in 'Inside Job' have 'long espoused and long promoted' pro-market ideas and would have made the same arguments regardless of financial ties.(4)

So we have economists denying the effect of economic incentives?

Beyond that, there were arguments that public disclosure of conflicts of interest would violate faculty members' privacy.
But full public disclosure is not likely to gain much traction in the debate over a University-wide policy. Steele said that it is not necessary to publicly release disclosures made privately to University officials.

'I don’t think that the public needs to have access to forms that people fill out and all the materials that go into that,' [Provost Paul] Steele said. 'That would be onerous at least, and there might be other objections … that you are invading people’s sense of privacy and freedom.'(2)
I suppose that would have made some sense if the faculty member had not made any public pronouncements that could have been influenced by the undisclosed conflicts. However, the contention in "Inside Job" was that conflicted academic economists publicly advocated on behalf of their undisclosed clients. For example,
In 2006, the Iceland Chamber of Commerce paid Columbia Business School professor Frederic Mishkin $134,858 to co-author a report on Iceland’s economy and banking systems. In the report, titled 'Financial Stability in Iceland,' Mishkin painted a bright picture of the country’s economic future, but he did not disclose who was paying him to write it.

'Although Iceland’s economy does have imbalances that will eventually be reversed, financial fragility is not high and the likelihood of a financial meltdown is very low,' Mishkin wrote.

Two years later, Iceland’s economy collapsed. Its major banks failed, its currency lost much of its value, and thousands of its citizens lost their jobs. The New York Times wrote at the time that, to Icelanders, 'the collapse came so fast it seemed unreal, impossible.'(2)

Harvard Professors' Paid Apologia for Moammar Khadafy

Praising Iceland's economy was one thing. Praising brutal Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy as democratic was another.

In March, 2011, Mother Jones disclosed(5) how a consulting group run by Harvard professors was hired in part to burnish the image of Moammar Khadafy, who since has ordered brutal attacks on protesters within his country.
In February 2007 Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., who developed the concept of "soft power,' visited Libya and sipped tea for three hours with Muammar Qad'afi. Months later, he penned an elegant description of the chat for The New Republic, reporting that Qaddafi had been interested in discussing 'direct democracy.' Nye noted that 'there is no doubt that' the Libyan autocrat 'acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas—including soft power—with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy.' The article struck a hopeful tone: that there was a new Qaddafi. It also noted that Nye had gone to Libya 'at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy.'

Nye did not disclose all. He had actually traveled to Tripoli as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group (a relationship he disclosed in an email to Mother Jones), and the firm was working under a $3 million-per-year contract with Libya. Monitor, a Boston-based consulting firm with ties to the Harvard Business School, had been retained, according to internal documents obtained by a Libyan dissident group, not to promote economic development, but 'to enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi.' So The New Republic published an article sympathetic to Qaddafi that had been written by a prominent American intellectual paid by a firm that was being compensated by Libya to burnish the dictator's image.

Monitor also sponsored trips to Libya for scholars from other universities who also later wrote positively about Khadafy's and his reign over Libya, presumably after they had received their large consulting fees.

The Boston Globe reported(6) in more detail about a proposal by Monitor to write a laudatory book about Khadafy:
It reads like Libyan government propaganda, extolling the importance of Moammar Khadafy, his theories on democracy, and his 'core ideas on individual freedom.'

But the 22-page proposal for a book on Khadafy was written by Monitor Group, a Cambridge-based consultant firm founded by Harvard professors. The management consulting firm received $250,000 a month from the Libyan government from 2006 to 2008 for a wide range of services, including writing the book proposal, bringing prominent academics to Libya to meet Khadafy 'to enhance international appreciation of Libya' and trying to generate positive news coverage of the country.

As further documented in the Globe article, it was very clear that Monitor was paid not just to provide consultation, but to do public relations work on behalf of the Khadafy regime.

Yet an article in the Nation(7) made it clear that the prominent academics it hired did not disclose who paid them, or the purposes of those payments:
Joseph Nye of Harvard’s Kennedy School wrote in The New Republic in 2007 that Muammar Qaddafi was interested in discussing 'direct democracy.'

Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics wrote in the Guardian the same year that Libya under Qaddafi could become 'the Norway of North Africa.'

Benjamin Barber of Rutgers University wrote in the Washington Post, also in 2007, that Libya under Qaddafi could become 'the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government.

Great minds think alike? Actually, no: all were being paid by Libyan money, under a $3 million per year contract with a consulting group which promised to 'enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Quadhafi' in Britain and the US.

One more thing: none of them said in The New Republic, the Guardian, or the Washington Post that they were being paid by Libyan money.

So here again we have the elements of what Wendell Potter (see this post) called the "third party strategy." A public relations company hires outside "experts" with veneers of academic or professional credibility to promote the interests of its clients, without disclosing that the "experts" have become paid flacks. Again, this is bad enough when it is done on behalf of health policies favorable to commercial insurance companies. It is worse when it is done on behalf of brutal dictators.

More recently, the Globe discovered(8) that the Monitor Group negotiated with the head of the Libyan intelligence service who had been implicated in various violent acts,
He is Moammar Khadafy’s brother-in-law and his most trusted aide, convicted in absentia for the 1989 bombing of a French airliner and implicated in the 1996 massacre of 1,200 Libyan political prisoners.

But in 2006, Abdullah Al Sanusi was also the man who arranged the services of a noted Cambridge consulting firm in a very different project: revamping Libya’s reputation on the world stage.

Sanusi, a longtime head of Libya’s intelligence services, oversaw initial negotiations with the Monitor Group, which was vying for a contract with Libya to bring prominent Americans to speak to Khadafy as part of an effort to improve ties and nudge the pariah country toward reforms.

'We believe that your commitment to creating a program of mutual education and relationship building with the Unit ed States remains of critical importance at this turning point in Libyan history. We remain privileged to be trusted with this work,' Monitor’s chief executive, Mark Fuller, and project director, Rajeev Singh-Molares, wrote to Sanusi in 2006.

However, so far, Harvard leadership has if anything been more defensive about its faculty members' stealth public relations work for a brutal dictator than was Columbia's leadership about its faculty member's stealth public relations work for Iceland. As reported(9) again by the Boston Globe,
A prominent Harvard professor and former university administrator urged Harvard President Drew Faust during a faculty meeting yesterday to express 'shame'’ on behalf of the university at the disclosure of financial ties between a senior academic and Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.

Saying nothing would send the wrong message to students, giving them the impression that personal financial gain could come at the expense of ethical conduct, said Harry Lewis, a computer science professor who formerly served as undergraduate dean.

'Shouldn’t Harvard acknowledge its embarrassment, and might you remind us that when we parlay our status as Harvard professors for personal profit, we can hurt both the university and all of its members?' Lewis asked Faust at the monthly gathering of the arts and sciences faculty.

Faculty meetings are closed to outside media, but Lewis provided the Globe a written transcript of his statement, which he sent to Faust several days ago.

Faust — who, according to Lewis, told him she did not want to be 'scold in chief' — said she supports the wide discretion of faculty members to pursue the directions of academic inquiry and outside engagements they choose.

How low once proud institutions have fallen was demonstrated by a Harvard President who could not bring herself to "scold" faculty who were paid to provide public relations for a brutal dictator while hiding behind their Harvard titles.  Her action was not just "a weak standard for an institution of global leadership,"(10) but failed to erase "a distinctive odor, one that emanates from the corruption of academic reputation."(11)


Since before we first started this blog, we wondered somewhat despairingly how medicine, and particularly academic medicine, had become so badly lead.  Since the global economic collapse/ Great Recession it belatedly became clear that health care has just been swept along by the waves that drove larger social, economic and political institutions.  In particular, when we wondered how conflicts of interest had become so pervasive in medicine, we did not realize how pervasive conflicts of interest and corruption had become throughout the world.  The fact that leaders of previously revered educational institutions like Columbia and Harvard still cannot bring themselves even to admit the need to disclose conflicts, much less "scold" people for selling out to brutal tyrants indicates how deep the rot has gone.

Fixing the great problems of health care will require fixing the greater problems of society at large.  We must learn to discredit, not honor the "wildly ambitious agents of opportunity" that have been sent out to dominate the new gilded age.   


1.  Halberstam D. The new establishment: the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire. Vanity Fair, October, 1994. Link here.
2. Poliak S. 'Inside Job' prompts new look at conflict of interest policy. Columbia Spectator, April 13, 2011. Link here.
3. Poliak S. After documentary, B-school rethinking ethics. Columbia Spectator, April 15, 2011. Link here.
4. Poliak S, Roth S. 'Inside Job' sparks three separate reviews of disclosure policy. Columbia Spectator, April 14, 2011. Link here.
5. Corn D, Mahanta S. From Libya with love. Mother Jones, March 3, 2011. Link here.
6. Stockman F. Local consultants aided Khadafy. Boston Globe, March 4, 2011. Link here.
7. Wiener J. Professors paid by Qaddafi: providing 'positive public relations.' The Nation, March 5, 2011. Link here.
8. Stockman F. Top Khadafy aide helped craft deal with local firm. Boston Globe, March 30, 2011. Link here.
9. Jan T. Harvard leader confronted on professor's ties to Libya. Boston Globe, April 6, 2011. Link here.
10. Anonymous. Yes, Harvard chief should scold profs who worked for Khadafys.  Boston Globe, April 11, 2011.  Link here.
11.  Barrett PM. The professors and Qaddafi's extreme makeover.  Bloomberg BusinessWeek, April 6, 2011.  Link here.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

FDA Decides Regulating Implantable Defibrillator Medical Devices a "Political Hot Potato"; Demurs

Well, not exactly, but they have decided regulation of another medical device is a political hot potato, and demurred on enforcing regulation: 

Health IT. 

Health IT are medical devices.

FDA's Chair of the Center for Device and Radiological Health, Jeffrey Shuren, MD JD, stated this explicitly on Feb. 25, 2010 (see testimony to the HHS Health Information Technology HIT Policy Committee at this PDF) that:

... Under the Federal, Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, [that regulates all drug, medical devices, etc. in the United States - ed.] HIT software is a medical device. Currently, the FDA mandates that manufacturers of other types of software devices comply with the laws and regulations that apply to more traditional medical device firms. These products include devices that contain one or more software components, parts, or accessories (such as electrocardiographic (ECG) systems used to monitor patient activity), as well as devices that are composed solely of software (such as laboratory information management systems).

That leaves no doubt that these are medical devices. However, he also stated:

To date, FDA has largely refrained from enforcing our regulatory requirements with respect to HIT devices.

In other words, this medical device receives special accommodation over all others,such as heart stents, defibrillators, spine and knee implants, etc., all of which have been in the news in recent years for major defects and malfunctions, up to and including causing patient deaths. The extent would have likely been far, far worse had these gadgets been unregulated.

One should ask: why the special accommodation for health IT medical devices? What are the underlying politics, and who is behind them? Especially when FDA is aware of potential risks that may only be the "tip of the iceberg?"

The selective reluctance to enforce the FD&C Act persists to this day. See for example this link regarding his statements just a few days ago here in Philadelphia: Will FDA Regulate EHR's? :

Speaking at the first annual PharmEHR Summit in Philadelphia on April 7, Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., director of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the FDA, said his agency could change its traditional hands-off approach to EHRs, but he acknowledged that the potential of FDA regulation raises serious clinical issues [the only clinical issues I can think of are in holding vendors accountable for patient injury - ed.] and is a “political hot potato.” As of right now we’re not regulating EHRs, and it may turn out that we won’t,” he said.

A "political hot potato" as the reason for an FDA hands-off policy?  Remarkable. 

Tossing away political hot potatoes and ... patients.

Likely translation: FDA regulation of health IT will never happen.

One implication is that health IT quality, safety, efficacy, privacy, security, and other issues about these systems will remain subject to HHS and industry caprice.

While we're at it, let's deregulate knee implants too...

-- SS

Addendum April 19, 2011:

Roy Poses observes that:

Here is a great example of regulatory capture. The health care IT industry has amassed such political clout that it now has impunity to regulation. Once again, combined economic and political power trumps patients' and the public's health and safety. We will not be able to really reform health care until we can provide for honest, independent health care regulation to uphold patients' and the public's health.

-- SS

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"The 'Third Rail' that No One Wishes to Analyze" - Conflicts of Interest Affecting Health Care Foundations

On Health Care Renewal we discuss what we think are important issues affecting health care that seem to be rarely mentioned in the medical and health care literature and the "main-stream media."  In particular, we focus on problems in health care leadership and governance, how they threatened the core values of health care professionals, and how these threats contribute to rising costs, and declining access and quality. 

One of our preoccupations has been why these problems remain so anechoic.  A new article in PLoS Medicine [Stuckler D, Basu S, McKee M. Global health philanthropy and institutional relationships: how should conflicts of interest be addressed? PLoS Med 8(4): e1001020. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001020.  Link here. ] seems to have uncovered another missing link to the anechoic effect. 

Private Foundations and Their Influence on Global Health

The article noted the importance of the influence of private foundations on global health:
While corporate involvement in and government aid for health has been extensively analyzed and critiqued in the public health literature, less attention has been paid to the impact of private donors on public health. Over the past decade, the bulk of new health aid designed to reach the Millennium Development Goals has come from individuals and corporations. The influence of this private philanthropy on global health is profound and transformative.

Private foundations operate outside the typical boundaries of democracy; unlike government ministries, private foundations cannot be influenced in the same way by the communities affected by the foundations' actions. In the interests of public health, and particularly because poor communities affected by foundations do not automatically have a feedback mechanism to influence the decisions of private funders, we argue that it is appropriate to subject private foundations to the same scrutiny received by public institutions.

In this paper, we examine the scope of potential conflicts of interests that exist among the private foundations that are major funders of global health.

I would add that private foundations may have an outsize influence not only on global public health policy, but also on health care policy within particular countries, including the US.   This may arise because of the perception that they are more independent and nearer the cutting edge than are government and industry sources of funding. For example, here in the US, the Kellogg and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations have been widely perceived by health care, services and policy researchers as especially influential and respectable sources of funding, possibly partially because of the perception that they have less self-serving agendas than do government agencies and for-profit health care corporations.

The Possibility of Conflicts of Interest

The authors noted increasing concern about conflicts of interest affecting the activities of for-profit corporations involved in public health and health care:
because tensions can arise between the profit motives of corporations and the promotion of public health. Whereas corporations make products that can improve health (such as pharmaceuticals and vaccines) and relationships between public health institutions and for-profit corporations can be seen as positive opportunities for corporations to improve public health, corporations also make products that damage health (such as tobacco or unhealthy foods). And because some corporations have a vested interest in the activities of public health bodies, there have been documented attempts to influence the public health agenda by establishing associations with health care institutions

Thus the authors thought it also made sense to address conflicts of interest affecting private foundations operating in the global health space. They performed a case-study of the largest global health foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, while also briefly discussing four other large global health foundations, the Ford Foundation, W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation.

Stock Holdings

The article noted that the Gates Foundation had substantial investments in food and pharmaceutical companies:
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's corporate stock endowment is heavily invested in food and pharmaceutical companies, directly and indirectly .... The Foundation holds significant shares in McDonald's (9.4 million shares representing about 5% of the Gates' portfolio), and Coca-Cola (>15 million shares, over 7% of the Foundation's portfolio, not counting Berkshire Hathaway holdings). In 2009 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sold extensive pharmaceutical holdings in Johnson & Johnson (2.5 million shares), Schering-Plough Corporation (14.9 million shares), Eli Lilly and Company (about 1 million shares), Merck & Co. (8.1 million shares), and Wyeth (3.7 million shares).

Also, the Foundation indirectly invests in food and pharmaceutical companies through its holdings of Berkshire Hathaway:
Berkshire Hathaway's largest investment is in Coca-Cola. It owns an additional 8.7% of Coca-Cola (Warren Buffett's firm is the largest shareholder in Coca-Cola, having stock worth >$10 billion dollars) and 6.3% of Kraft (Buffett is also the largest shareholder of Kraft). Berkshire Hathaway also has significant ownership in GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble, and is one of the main global investors in the latter two pharmaceutical companies.

The article also noted that the Ford, Rockefeller, Kellogg and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation had significant holdings in Coca-Cola, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, McDonalds, Nestle, NovoNordisk, YumBrands, Pizza Hut, KFC, Johnson & Johnson, and Sanofi-Aventis, and that the Ford Foundation held shares in a tobacco company, Lorillard, and the Kellogg and Rockefeller Foundations "were indirectly invested in tobacco corporations through conglomerate equity funds...."

This admittedly case-based data suggested that the major private foundations active in global health may have financial holdings that could possibly influence their actions in favor of the vested interests of food, pharmaceutical, and even tobacco companies.

Conflicts Affecting Foundation Leadership

The article noted that:
Several of the [Gates] Foundation's members of the management committee, leadership teams, affiliates, and major funders are currently or were previously members of the boards or executive branches of several major food and pharmaceutical companies ... including Coca-Cola, Merck, Novartis, General Mills, Kraft, and Unilever....

In addition,
Further overlaps between Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation leadership, other private foundations, and circular flows of personnel with food and pharmaceutical companies were observed .... Such patterns of interlinked board directorships, common among corporations and nonprofit organizations, were similarly found in the other private foundations studied.

Examples provided in an appendix were:
Anne Fudge, the chairman of the Gates Foundation’s US Program Advisory Panel is also on the board of directors of Rockefeller Foundation (in addition to General Electric, Novartis, Unilever, and Harvard University, among others).

Members of personnel also move between the Foundation and pharmaceutical companies. For example, in April 2010, a former Merck senior vice president, Richard Henriques, became the chief financial officer of the Gates Foundation. At least two other members of the Gates Foundation leadership have transferred from the leadership of GlaxoSmithKline to sit on the Foundation’s board of directors, including Kate James, the chief communications officer, and Tachi Yamada, until February 2011, the head of the Foundation’s global health program. Similar patterns were observed with the other foundations studied.

Again, this admittedly case-based data suggested that the major private foundations active in global health may have leaders who have financial relationships that could possibly influence their actions in favor of the vested interests of food and pharmaceutical companies.

Program Initiatives Possibly Related to Conflicts

The article asserted:
The bulk of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's financial transfers in global health have been to programs developing medical technologies....

In particular,
Overall, about 42% of all funding was spent on health care delivery or increasing access to drugs, vaccines, and medical commodities, while an additional one-third was allocated to technology development (mainly for vaccines and microbicides) or basic science research.

Specific programs were related to companies in which the the Gates Foundation or its leaders had financial interests:
The Foundation has established partnerships with the Coca-Cola Company, which, in the words of the Foundation, are intended to 'create new market opportunities for local farmers whose fruit will be used for Coca-Cola's locally-produced and sold fruit juices'.

many of the Foundation's pharmaceutical development grants may benefit leading pharmaceutical companies such as Merck and GlaxoSmithKline....

Johnson & Johnson has entered a clinical partnership to develop new HIV-prevention technology, noting 'the work between Johnson & Johnson and the Gates Foundation is a strong, strategic, comprehensive relationship'.

While there are many needs in global health, and many approaches to addressing these needs, this limited case-based data suggested that a strong focus of the Gates Foundation was on approaches that revolve around drugs, devices and biotechnology, again which would tend to favor the vested interests of the pharmaceutical companies which the Foundation holds in its investment portfolio and with which some of its leaders have or had financial relationships.


While the data from this case-study were limited, they do suggest that major private foundations that support global health, and by extension, health care, services, and policy research may have institutional conflicts of interest, and their leaders may have personal conflicts of interest. It is possible that these conflicts have steered global health policy to favor vested interests, particularly towards approaches that depend on drugs and devices, perhaps instead of more effective ones using less technology.

Furthermore, it is possible that that these conflicts of interest have helped create the anechoic effect.  Conflicts of interest could have pushed the foundations in directions that favored specific vested interests, and away from others that may threaten such interests.  Many of the issues we discuss on Health Care Renewal may threaten such interests.  Private health foundations have been notably uninterested in addressing how problems in leadership and governance of health care organizations can threaten core values, They have been particularly uninterested in addressing specific tactics used when leadership is ill-informed, incompetent, self-interested, conflicted, or even corrupt, e.g., deceptive practices used to promote products and services, and promote policies favorable to vested interests, including, of course, deliberate creation of conflicts of interest (such as the cultivation of key opinion leaders).

In fact, a particular version of the anechoic effect surrounds the private foundations themselves, as described by Stuckler et al:
Although the philanthropic activities of wealthy individuals and corporations have attracted controversy in the past (Text S1), their charitable mission often means that they face less scrutiny than governments; critical analysis of foundations can be seen as 'biting the hand that feeds us.' As a result, within the global health community, private donors are sometimes viewed as the 'third rail' that no one wishes to analyze.

We have often commented on the pervasiveness of conflicts of interest in health care. Now we see them affecting even the most respected private health care foundations which were previously regarded as independent. The web of conflicts of interest may benefit those personally involved, but to the detriment of patients' and the public's health. Unfortunately, as the web has gotten more complex, it stifles awareness of the problem by the unconflicted, much less their ability to respond.

At a minimum, I urge that private health care foundations fully disclose their institutional conflicts of interest, and the conflicts of interest of their leaders. If they wish to maintain their previously sterling reputations, they ought to consider divesting themselves of financial holdings that generate institutional conflicts, and of leaders who have financial relationships that generate personal conflicts.

Hat tip: to Ed Silverman on the PharmaLot blog.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Johnson and Johnson Runs Afoul of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Johnson and Johnson, the once highly reputed international pharmaceutical and device company, cannot catch a break. 

International Bribery Charges

As reported by Bloomberg, the latest story is about bribery claims across multiple countries and two continents:
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), the world’s second-biggest seller of medical products, will pay $70 million after admitting that the company bribed doctors in Europe and paid kickbacks in Iraq to win contracts and sell drugs and artificial joints.

Subsidiaries of J&J paid bribes to doctors and hospital administrators in Greece, Poland and Romania, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice said today in filings at U.S. District Court in Washington. The company also made illegal payments to Iraqi officials to win contracts under the U.N. oil-for-food program, the filings said.

J&J, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, used slush funds, sham contracts and off-shore companies in the Isle of Man to carry out the bribery, the SEC said. Public health system doctors and administrators who ordered J&J products such as surgical implants or prescribed the company’s drugs were rewarded in a variety of ways, including with cash and travel.
Simultaneously, in the UK,
J&J’s DePuy International Ltd. subsidiary was ordered to pay 4.8 million pounds ($7.9 million) to resolve U.K. claims related to the bribery in Greece, the Serious Fraud Office said in a statement today.

Per the Wall Street Journal, the company also entered into a deferred prosecution agreement.

Admissions of Guilt

The company could not deny wrong-doing, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
As part of the settlement, J&J acknowledged responsibility for the actions of its units, employees and agents who made 'various improper payments to publicly employed health-care providers in Greece, Poland and Romania in order to induce the purchase of medical devices and pharmaceuticals manufactured by J&J subsidiaries,' according to the Justice Department.

J&J also acknowledged that kickbacks were paid on behalf of J&J units to the former government of Iraq under the United Nations Oil-for-Food program in order to secure contracts to provide humanitarian supplies.
But No Apology, Nor Acknowledgement of Responsibility
The Johnson and Johnson CEO issued the de rigeur non-apology apology:
'More than four years ago, we went to the government to report improper payments and have taken full responsibility for these actions,' J&J Chief Executive William C. Weldon said in a press release. 'We are deeply disappointed by the unacceptable conduct that led to these violations.'

Notice the clever phrasing that seems to deny that Weldon had any responsibility for these actions, which occurred in the remote past and which were addressed as soon as top management were made aware of them.

Management was Aware

In fact, however, as discussed by Jim Edwards on his BNEt blog, it appears that management had been well aware of the bad behavior for a long time:
But J&J’s internal emails, plus the U.K. Serious Fraud Office’s records, indicate that J&J management knew as early as 1999 that it was making improper payments to Greek sales agents, and that money was disappearing into what it called a 'black hole' in Europe.

Yet J&J later acquired the company that operated that 'black hole' in order to maintain its illegal sales relationships in Greece, according to the SEC’s complaint. And although the SEC praised J&J’s cooperation in its probe, J&J took eight years to initially inform the SEC of its problems.

For the gory details, see his blog post.

Only the Latest Troubles

This latest ethical black eye comes after numerous other troubles for the giant company. As Bloomberg put it:
The settlement comes less than a month after J&J’s McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit signed a consent decree giving the Food and Drug Administration more oversight at three plants making children’s Tylenol, Motrin and other over-the-counter drugs recalled in the past year because of faulty ingredients or foul odors caused by chemical contamination of storage pallets.

The March 10 agreement left the plants under enhanced scrutiny for five years, and J&J faces fines of as much as $10 million a year if the FDA doesn’t approve of changes at the facilities, the company said in a statement last month.

J&J has recalled more than 50 products since the start of 2010, from the consumer medications to failing artificial hips, improperly rinsed contact lenses, insulin cartridges that may leak and cracked syringes loaded with prescription drugs. The company installed a new corporate quality-control director and announced companywide compliance standards in August.

In February, J&J reorganized its consumer division and announced the head of its DePuy Orthopaedics unit had resigned.

There is actually more. We noted last month that Johnson and Johnson's Janssen's subsidiary's Risperdal marketing was found deceptive by a South Carolina jury. In addition,  In 2010, another jury found that the company had committed marketing fraud in its promotion of Risperdal (see post here), and its Ortho-McNeil-Janssen subsidiary also made a guilty plea to a misdemeanor for and civil settlement of charges of "misbranding" Topamax (see post here).

No Penalties for Individuals

As in many such cases we have discussed before, despite the seriousness of the charges and the corporate, although not individual admissions of responsibility, no individual in the US apparently will suffer any negative consequences for the misbehavior.  (Per the WSJ, one UK executive went to prison for bribery by DePuy in Greece.) 

Moreover, rather than suffering, the US company leadership has personally profited.  As we have mentioned more than once, most recently here, the increasing numbers of legal and regulatory sanctions and the increasing numbers of product recalls stand in stark contrast to the plutocratic remuneration given to top Johnson and Johnson executives.  CEO Weldon received about $29 million in 2010, while his top five lieutenants each got from over $5 million to just under $9 million.  The company board asserted that Weldon "met expectations," and exerted "strong leadership."  At best, it appears that the clubby and out-of touch governance of health care organizations, generally by fellow members of the CEO's guild, leavened with a few conflicted academic health care leaders, rewards insiders despite, or even because of  failed leadership.  

So once more with feeling, ... health care organizations need leaders that uphold the core values of health care, and focus on and are accountable for the mission, not on secondary responsibilities that conflict with these values and their mission, and not on self-enrichment. Leaders ought to be rewarded reasonably, but not lavishly, for doing what ultimately improves patient care, or when applicable, good education and good research.  On the other hand, those who authorize, direct and implement bad behavior ought to suffer negative consequences sufficient to deter future bad behavior.

If we do not fix the severe problems affecting the leadership and governance of health care, and do not increase accountability, integrity and transparency of health care leadership and governance, we will be as much to blame as the leaders when the system collapses.

Meanwhile, I can only ask Johnson and Johnson executives and board members, have you no shame?

ADDENDUM (13 April, 2011) - See also posts by Merrill Goozner on the GoozNews blog, and by Maggie Mahar on the HealthBeat blog.

Toward Meaningful Usability: Five Keys to Creating Physician- Centric CPOE (Wait - The Terms "Safety", "Risk" and "Error" Are Missing)

In a 2011 "White Paper" from a company PatientKeeper entitled "Toward Meaningful Usability: Five Keys to Creating Physician-Centric CPOE" (PDF), an organization whose motto is "Enabling Physicians to Focus on Patients ... Not Technology", I again note a common phenomenon.

Certain verboten terms are absent.

What might those terms be? More on that in a moment...

They speak of "the failure of CPOE":

The failure of CPOE to date can be attributed to many factors that ultimately lead to a lack of physician adoption. CPOE systems have historically been designed to support the workflow of the departments responsible for fulfilling the orders rather than the physician workflow around entering orders. As a result, entering orders electronically can take significantly longer than written or verbal orders and often requires the physician to change the way they currently practice medicine.

That's a problem, considering the following observation (paraphrased from a "why-pharma-fails" post at this link):

"The machine was made for Clinicians, not Clinicians for the Machine."

But still, words are missing from the White Paper. Again, more on that in a moment.

... Hospitals often purchase CPOE on the premise that standardization of care through evidence-based order sets is the optimal way to improve patient care delivery and reduce healthcare costs. In fact, most standardized care is not
supported by evidence so spending months or even years to achieve order set consensus only serves to delay implementation and use while increasing the overall cost of the order entry system.

Well, yes, but where are those missing words?

Most CPOE systems expose physicians to all clinical alerts regardless of severity.
The preponderance of these alerts disrupts the ordering process, leads to alert fatigue, and results in
frustration on the part of the physician. Finally, the number of available workstations, including those on the hospital floors and in patient rooms, is limited, and physicians may have to wait in queue to enter their orders. This may lead to an increase in verbal orders from the physician to the nurse, pharmacist, etc. as well as frustration with a process that requires more physician time than simple pen and paper.

There must be a lot of frustrated doctors out there. Still, the shibboleth terms are missing.

Cited are the usual KOL's:

1 D. W. Bates, J. M. Teich, J. Lee et al., “The Impact of Computerized Physician Order Entry on Medication Error Prevention,” Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association 6 (July/August 1999): 13–21.
2 D. W. Bates and A. A. Gawande, “Improving Safety with Information Technology,” New England Journal of Medicine 348 (June 19, 2003): 2526–34.
3 Jason Hess, KLAS Enterprises (Orem, Utah), “Are We There Yet? Getting to Meaningful CPOE Use”, July 13, 2010

Still no mention of the missing critical terms.

The next generation of CPOE solutions must ultimately save physicians time, rather than simply being time-neutral. Otherwise, they will suffer the fate of most previous attempts to implement this required functionality – at the cost of improved patient care, better outcomes, and lost ARRA stimulus dollars.

In other words, the worst-case scenario is wasted promotional dollars and maintenance of the clinical status quo.

Still, key terms are missing.

What are those terms?

Here they are, the unaccounted-for outcomes of CPOE and its toxicity in its present form:

  • Safety (as in, "reduction of")
  • Risk (as in, "of injury, increased")
  • Danger (as of, "putting patients in")
  • Error (as in, "the outcome of toxic HIT")
  • Harm (as in, "injury and death")

This was no mere White Paper. A more appropriate term might be a "Snow White" paper:

CPOE, An Enchanted Technology. Find the Prince!

Health IT, including dysfunctional and toxic CPOE, causes frustration among doctors. CPOE failure is merely "physician nonacceptance."

But the
frustration among injured or dead patients and their families seems never to be mentioned or considered in this industry.

I pointed out that similar terms were missing from the PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology
) report on health IT at my Feb. 2011 post "Brief Comments on the PCAST Report on Health IT."


-- SS