Op-Ed: Major Reforms in the Financing and Oversight of Clinical Research Neededt

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Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law & Policy has called for major substantive reforms in the financing and oversight of clinical research. In a White Paper entitled “ Conflicts of Interest in Clinical Trial Recruitment & Enrollment: A Call for Increased Oversight,” the Center proposes legal and policy changes to address conflicts of interest in the relationships between industry and doctors that can create unwarranted risks to trial participants and to the scientific integrity of research.

Over 60% of testing of experimental drugs and medical devices now occurs in physicians’ private offices; unlike years past, industry funds a much higher percent of clinical trials than government, frequently paying researchers significantly more than government does. For some physician practices, conducting clinical trials represents a significant portion of their income.

Federal regulations in this area have not kept up with the rapid changes in how research occurs, and even those regulations that exist are poorly enforced, according to recent government studies. Understanding that the collaboration among industry, government, and medicine in the pursuit of clinical research is critical to driving scientific progress, particularly as industry increasingly replaces the government as the primary source of research funding, the Center’s recommendations include:

1) Establishing a norm of financial neutrality between treatment and research. Ensuring that physicians receive comparable compensation for treatment and research will help ensure that their decisions to conduct research, as well as to recommend that a particular individual participate in a clinical trial, are grounded in reasons unrelated to their personal financial interests. This will be best accomplished, in the first instance through regulations that ban certain kinds of research compensation, and provide examples of acceptable payment methodologies that industry can follow. Reform by prosecution signals what practices government dislikes, but does not provide a clear vision of ideal approaches to managing conflicts of interest related to the conduct of research.

2) Establishing federal guidelines as to the principles or methodology by which to determine fair market value of physician time spent in clinical work. Federal regulations should be promulgated that establish a benchmark formula for determining fair market value of physicians’ time, effort and expenses for clinical research. Such regulations would promote the goal of financial neutrality between treatment and research. Physicians cannot be underpaid for research either – compensation for clinical trial work should therefore include reimbursement for any additional expenses that are unique to the research environment.

3) Banning payments with equity interests; disqualification of investigators who hold direct interests in the outcome of the research. Federal regulations should prohibit compensation for research in the form of an equity interest in the sponsor of a clinical trial. The law should preclude researchers who have investments that give them a direct interest in the outcome of the research from leading clinical trials.  Where absolutely necessary, such individuals might appropriately serve as consultants.

4) Banning payments of finder’s fees and bonuses for recruitment and retention of trial subjects. Certain forms of compensation create conflicts of interest that can incentivize investigators to enroll individuals in a clinical trial who are too healthy or too sick to participate, or to deemphasize information that might discourage individuals from consenting to trial enrollment. Federal law should ban such compensation methods, including finder’s fees and bonuses for meeting recruitment and retention goals.

5) Reforming federal regulations to compel and better guide the evaluation of relationships between industry and would-be physician investigators prior to the commencement of research.   The White Paper includes overlapping but sometimes distinctive recommendations for federal regulation to evaluate and oversee investigator or institutional conflicts of interest, both for research within and without academic medical centers.  Specific to research outside of academic medical centers, federal regulations should spell out clearly the obligation of community-based physicians acting as investigators or institutions acting on their behalf to report information about compensation for research and other financial interests to Institutional Review Boards.

Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law & Policy. The Center is a think tank that fosters dialogue, scholarship, and policy solutions to critical issues in health and pharmaceutical law. As part of its mission, it convenes policymakers, consumer advocates, the medical profession, industry, and government in the search for concrete solutions to the ethical, legal, and social questions presented in the health and pharmaceutical arenas. The Center also runs a compliance training program covering the state and federal laws governing the development and marketing of drugs and medical devices.

The White Paper, “Conflicts of Interest in Clinical Trial Recruitment & Enrollment: A Call for Increased Oversight,” may be found here.

Kathleen Boozang is Associate Dean and Professor at the Seton Hall School of Law.