Tuesday, December 10, 2013

For Whom the Door Revolves - from For-Profit Contract Research Organization Leadership to Surgeon General?

The new nominee to be US Surgeon General is Dr Vivek Murthy, as announced in the Boston Globe White Coat Notes blog in November.  A Boston Globe article a few days described not only his "healthy lifestyle" which included ingestion of "unflavored almond milk, raw carrots, and high-protein grains," as well as the practice of yoga, but how he has

strived to use his medical degree to help patients beyond the hospital walls through starting health care companies and nonprofits. His supporters hope that his record stands out....

While the US Surgeon General has little power, occupants of the office have tried to use it as a bully pulpit, often for public health issues.  For example, Dr C Everett Koop was known for his campaign against smoking, and his advocacy for public health measures to combat HIV.   Most previous Surgeons General came from academic, public health, and/or practice backgrounds (Dr Koop was Physician-in-Chief of the Childrens Hospital in Philadelphia; his successor, Dr Antonia Caremello was in academic pediatrics, private practice, and at the NIH; then Dr M Jocelyn Elders also came from academic pediatrics, etc.)

Dr Murthy superficially seems to come from this tradition.  The Globe article noted his "professional life as a Brigham and Women's Hospital [a prestigious Harvard teaching institution] physician."

However, Dr Murthy was also described by the official statement nominating him to be surgeon general as "Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of TrialNetworks, formerly known as Epernicus, since 2007."  The Globe called it a "software start-up company in Needham ... to help drug developers efficiently collect information from clinical trials."

But wait, an op-ed in early December in USA Today called him a "self described passionate entrepreneur" and "a part-time physician and a full-time businessman."  In fact, the TrialNetworks web-site describes a company that

provides sponsors and CROs the industry's only Clinical Trial Optimization System. Using this modern and intuitive cloud-based technology, customers such as Merck & Co. and Infinity Pharmaceuticals are able to transform the quality and efficiency of clinical operations at each stage of a trial from feasibility through closeout. Companies ranging from biotechs to Top-10 pharmas have implemented the TrialNetworks platform for use in Phase I-IV trials by more than 25,000 site staff in 60 countries.
Thus, TrialNetworks is a form of for-profit contract research organization in that it is apparently paid by drug and biotechnology companies to help them do clinical trials and other clinical research.

Its website includes customer testimonials from  Merck, Biogen Idec, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and Ariad Pharma.

So apparently Dr Murthy, if approved, may be the first US Surgeon General to come through the revolving door from a leadership position in a company that is a variant on the for profit contract research organization theme, an organization that supports clinical research by the pharmaceutical industry, and has major pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporate clients.  As we have discussed, most clinical research is now sponsored, and effectively run by for-profit drug, biotechnology and device companies, and is devoted to efforts by these companies to assess their own products, often ostensibly as required for regulatory approval, but often influenced by marketing considerations.  Unfortunately, the domination of clinical research by those with vested interests in having the research turn out in favor of their own products has resulted in many examples of manipulation of the research, and suppression when that manipulation has failed to produce the desired results.

So the obvious concern about Dr Murthy would be whether he would use his bully pulpit only to support patients' and the public's health,  or would his prior experience in a leadership position in commercially sponsored pharmaceutical research influence him in favor of that industry's priorities?

As we have discussed, US health care is now dominated by for-profit corporations, and these organization can command the effort of multi-million or billion dollar marketing and public relations divisions to sell their products and the policy positions they favor.  These organizations hardly are in need of more bully pulpits.  Yet it seems that this new appointment will further increase the influence in government of big health care business, rather than that of health care professionals, patients, and the people in general.

Sadly, it seems that Dr Murthy's nomination is just the latest example of how leadership of health care in government and in the corporate world now overlaps, and how the role of "pure" health care practitioners and health care academics in government has waned.  As we previously noted,  the system in which government and big corporations largely overlap in terms of their leadership and presumably goals is called corporatism.  One can argue that such systems end up being run primarily for the benefit of corporate and government insiders.

 Until we dispel the fog of corporatism that has spread over the government that was once supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people, expect no real health care reform, and expect continuing rising costs, declining access, and worsening patient care. Obviously, true health care reform would start with the government and its officials putting patients' and the public's health first, way ahead of the financial comfort of corporate leaders.

I would note that neither the currently controversial and now operational Affordable Care Act, nor any of its opponents schemes for alternatives addresses this issue.

by Roy M. Poses MD for Health Care Renewal 


Gary M. Levin said...

Yes, the good doctor does come from a different mold. This is not a lifetime appointment and it will be an interesting addition to a government position. Many people think government needs more people who have good business backgrounds, can follow proven financial principles, know how to balance a budget and attract others who have an entrepenurial spirit. These people often fill a void ignored by conventional government bureaucrats. Entrepenurial spirit is not an 'evil' in it's own. Consider CIRM in California. This Stem Cell Funding initiative was initiated by private leadership and passed in a referendum to support Stem Cell Research when the U.S. government refused to fund it.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Dr Levin,

I am not sure that the Surgeon General, who mainly has the opportunity to be an advocate for public health, and is primarily not an administrator, needs such skills as much as people in purely administrative positions.

Furthermore, while it may be good to have government agencies run in a buseinesslike manner, the goals of government are not the same as the goals of a business.

In addition, if you want to find bureaucrats, just look in the management of any large health care organization, including any large for-profit health care corporation.