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Medical Schools' Financial Ties to Drug and Medical Device Makers Cause for Concern

Feb 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Medical schools have been slow to develop policies to prevent conflicts-of-interest with the medical device and drug companies that provide a good deal of their funding.  Given the strong ties drug companies and medical device makers have with the medical community, it’s disheartening that only a mere one-third of all U.S. medical schools have conflict of interest policies aimed at their financial ties with these companies, researchers said Tuesday.  Industry cultivate deep financial relationships early on by targeting medical schools, often relying on academic researchers to conduct studies that may help win government approval for drugs or medical devices  that could generate billions of dollars in sales.

Researchers asked 125 U.S. medical schools about their policies governing financial ties with industry.  Eighty-six schools responded to the 2006 survey and, of that, 38 percent had adopted a policy covering financial interests held by the institution, 37 percent were working on adopting such a policy, and 25 percent were doing nothing.  "Frankly I'm a little surprised at the slow rate of uptake," Eric Campbell of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School, who helped lead the study. "It's somewhat shocking to me that they (the policies) don't exist more frequently."  Seventy percent had policies governing conflicts of interest in financial relationships between industry and individual senior and mid-level officials; however, when it came to policing institutions’ money ties to industry, schools were reticent.  Campbell said he did not know how much the failure of some schools to adopt policies was driven by a desire to protect the flood of industry cash they receive.  "I suspect it very well could be," said Campbell, whose findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Dr. David Korn, chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges representing the schools, said he was "somewhat disappointed" by how many schools lack policies; he did not have figures on how much industry money was going to schools.  "It does take will," Korn said, adding that his group and the Association of American Universities are looking to release a plan later this month for schools to create and implement policies; they will be calling on every school to have one in place within two years.

Critics question the flow of industry money into medical schools, arguing that the money may be intended, at least in part, to buy influence in these schools while potentially harming the independence and integrity of research and education programs.  "For example, imagine a psychiatry program that gets a bunch of money each year for their residency program from a company that makes antidepressants.  It's conceivable that it would have a negative effect on the amount of time that this residency program spent teaching doctors to treat depression with things other than drugs," Campbell said.

In a commentary, David Rothman of New York’s Columbia University said that at a time when U.S. government research funding is waning and competition for philanthropic gifts is fierce, schools may not be eager to tie their own hands when it comes to getting money.  "It is fair to ask whether it is naive to trust institutions to monitor and discipline their own financial activities, particularly when the financial returns can be substantial," Rothman wrote.


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