Why is the New England Journal of Medicine Scolding "Pharmascolds"?
I, a normally quiet blogger on this site, was disquieted by what may be a backlash aimed at quashing the anti-conflict-of-interest movement.
Lisa Rosenbaum just published her second of three treatises in the highly prestigious New England Journal of Medine, scolding "pharmascolds" (see Conflicts of Interest: Understanding Bias — The Case for Careful Study). "Pharmascolds" is the term Rosenbaum and others use for those of us at Health Care Renewal, the Institute of Medicine, and countless medical journals and institutions. Why? Because we dare assert there is great danger when providers practice though saddled by (potential) conflicts of interests in medicine. Such conflicts are created when physicians (up to 94% of us, according to Rosenbaum's research), other health care providers in practice, and health care organizations accept, not only gifts and trinkets, but also large, sometimes clandestine consulting fees and other arrangements from pharma and device companies, all the while providing direct patient care using the companies' products.
Rosenbaum and others say we pharmascolds are essentially self-righteous and obstructionist, holding back the progress of medical science. In this article, she seems to claim that not proving direct patient harm from a specific questionable financial arrangement with a company whose product we may therefore more likely prescribe, speak well of, or publish (pseudo)evidence supporting the use of, is enough of a reason to justify the arrangement.
Wouldn't that be the same as saying, "Until you actually crash into another car while texting, it's ok to text while driving, even if it's distracting."?
Rosenbaum uses mainly anecdote to prove her point, and appeals to a little-quoted, but still important, heuristic/bias called "moral liscensing." Rosenbaum describes the phenomenon correctly: "once disclosure [of a conflict of interest] gets the weight [of guilt] off your chest, you feel liberated and may feel licensed to behave immorally." True. But then Rosenbaum seems to support non-disclosure of acts that create conflicts of interest, because disclosure doesn't decrease the acts themselves.
Rosenbaum goes further. At the same time as she supports non-disclosure of conflicts, she attempts to paint those who accept conflict-generating arrangements and keep them clandestine as victims--afraid to "come out of the closet" because doing so is socially taboo, though the activity is not wrong.
I beg to differ. For certain acts, potential conflicts, and actual conflicts, it seems to me that mere disclosure of the act or conflict shouldn't relieve one of the guilt associated with the act or conflict. It also seems disclosure of a conflict should not make a speaker seem more credible to his/her audience because of its disclosure, though some research Rosenbaum quotes seems to show that disclosure improves credibility.
Perhaps the stronger argument for disclosure is to disqualify people from activities that should be prohibited for people in conflict, as well as to warn people away from engaging in questionable activities that would result in conflicts.
In an unbelievable twist of logic, Rosenbaum seems to be arguing in this article for more, not less of these questionable activities, in the interest of advancing science, until we prove patients are directly hurt by them, i.e., we have a "wreck." Heck, let's get rid of traffic lights too, while we're at it. People have eyes. We should trust them. They should be able to avoid accidents voluntarily, on their own.
In short, how could Dr. Rosenbaum not see that the best solution for the "problem" of conflicts of interests is avoidance when possible? One can't help but wonder if she and the Journal aren't blinded by the shimmer and pull of powerful, influential organizations, ones so shiny, so strong, and so ubiquitous that resistance is just too hard for her, the Journal, and for 94% of us.
Conflicts of interest should be avoided. Society has accepted that improved health will result not just from secondary prevention (e.g., not texting while driving after one has had an accident from the activity), but also from primary prevention (not texting while driving, even before an accident occurs).
Wally R. Smith, MD