PHYSICIANS/PHARMA: Is academic medicine beyond salvage? by The Industry Veteran

Several people are concerned about the integrity of our medical leaders, and the latest Cleveland Clinic spat has upset a few people, notably local MD Medpundit. I have a more jaded view. I liken it to when I heard that lawyers have to take an ethics test but are only not allowed to practice if they fail it, I assumed that any lawyer passing an ethics test lacked the aptitude required for the job! However, making a welcome return to THCB, even the usually cynical-beyond-belief contributor The Industry Veteran appears a little concerned. He writes:

I had previously viewed the tussle between renowned cardiologist Eric Topol and his boss at the Cleveland Clinic, Delos Cosgrove, as principally an academic spat whose significance did not extend beyond the personal fortunes and the organizational power positions of the two principals. The Times’s article, by contrast, suggests the Cleveland bash reveals that the integrity of academic/high research medicine is fundamentally compromised. Instead of remaining disinterested researchers who help to develop and evaluate new medicines and technologies, big time researchers and their institutions own equity positions in the companies whose products they evaluate. The very notion that medical researchers are gatekeepers for the public, motivated by professional ethics and the search for scientific truth, remains a fool’s myth. Who guards the guardians?I recently asked a friend who teaches marketing ethics at his university to tell me his views about the recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. That was the one where the Journal’s editors belatedly said they were shocked, shocked by the fact that Merck’s shills neglected to include three instances of myocardial infarction among a sample of Vioxx users. The specific issue for which I sought clarity concerned the relative responsibility of the academic physicians who authored the study (or, more accurately, whose names appeared above the study, since Merck’s medical writers doubtlessly wrote the paper) versus that of Merck, who sponsored the research. My friend’s pontifications assigned the lion’s share of blame to the physicians. They must reasonably be expected to know that the first and final interests of any corporation’s operators lie in obtaining profit to satisfy shareholders. In this particular case, the academic physicians would have been psychotically detached from reality not to have known that Merck’s pursuit of Vioxx profits included a thoroughly unethical inclination to twist and hide data. “If they were willing to accept research money and sponsorship from known crooks such as Merck,” he wrote, “then they had a responsibility to act with the very highest possible standards of ethics, and my guess is that they fell far short of that.” The Times article flicks off the lid to reveal that these kinds of self-aggrandizing conflicts are the routine condition of high powered, medical research.

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