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How Conflict of Interest Became a Health Care Urban Legend

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 6.30.35 PMThroughout history, physicians have treated patients for conditions that generations of their professional successors later deemed figments of their (the physicians’) imaginations.  The list is long, but in just the last 100 years, it has included such disorders as female hysteria, homosexuality, moral insanity, neurasthenia, and vapors, among many others.  The consequences of such diagnoses were not trivial, and in some cases, patients were stigmatized, ostracized, subjected involuntarily to a variety of noxious treatments, and even incarcerated because of them.  Yet we now believe that each of these conditions was a fiction, and they are absent from today’s textbooks.

Something similar may be afoot in the profession of medicine today.  The affliction is known as conflict of interest, and medicine is thought to be suffering a pandemic of it.  In fact, its proponents argue that no physician is safe.  Its symptoms among researchers are a tendency to conduct investigations and publish results that are biased, and among clinicians, to prescribe tests and therapies that their patients do not really need.  The underlying cause of the condition is thought to be financial inducements from industry, which lead these gullible physicians and scientists to betray their personal and professional integrity without even knowing it.

For example, industry funding of research might lead physician-scientists to bias their results in ways that line the pockets of pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers.  Likewise, the presence of industry representatives in offices and hospitals might lead physicians to write inappropriate prescriptions for industry-promoted drugs.  If physicians are presented with a gift such as a pen, a notepad, a book, or a free meal from an industry representative, they might be more inclined to use that company’s products in their practice.  The implication?  Physicians are insufficiently self-aware and trustworthy to put patients’ interests above their own.

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