The Conflict of Interest Pile On: A Cultural and Psychological Explanation

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  • 01/25/2008
The New York Times "breaks" the story that the American Heart Association receives support from Schering and Merck. The implication is that the AHA came out with a statement as a result of that connection. Let's assume for argument's sake that this is correct. And let's forgive the AHA for putting Donny Osmond on their website.

Here is the gist of the AHA statement:

Because Vytorin does not appear to be unsafe, lipid-lowering therapy with simvastatin is of proven benefit, and some patients have been prescribed Vytorin because a statin alone may not have been sufficiently effective in lowering their LDL or was not appropriate for them because of other medical conditions, we do not believe patients should stop taking the drug on their own,” said Dr. Jones. “However, patients on this combination drug should check with their doctor to see if they should stay on the drug, be switched to a statin alone, or take another combination of drugs for their cholesterol.”

Does anyone have a problem with that statement. If I were a Schering or Merck handler I would not think I got my money worth.

Or maybe the critics are not thinking conspiratorially enough. AHA also gets money from Novartis, GSK, Pfizer and other companies. Maybe they used their financial clout to water down what was going to be a hearty endorsement of the drug. Or maybe the money went to the millions AHA gives out in research grants to academic medical centers for CME and other reasons. Which is it? We don't know. And of course the rest of the pontificators have rushed to judgment based on the NY Times without regard to the essence of the AHA ENHANCE statement.

The next point of course is that if the AHA is simply a paid for mouthpiece for Big Phama, it goals, views, tactics, etc by virtue of receipt of financial support, then that cause and effect relationship must apply equally to organizations and individuals who receive support from organizations. So therefore, physicians, researchers, etc who receive money from foundations such as Commonwealth, the Open Society Institute, Pew, Josiah Macy, etc to share its biases and ideology. Similarly, people from HMOs, insurance companies, CMS, Medicaid who share a cost cutting view will reflect that bias and particular view of technology.

Finally, there is the so what question? As Ezekiel Emanuel as stated regarding for-profit IRBs: "What we should really focus on then is not the ideology of profit status but these substantive outcome data."

No one has proven that the purist approach will produce better health, better drugs, safer medicines. The movement against so-called conflict of interest is all based on a revulsion towards the profit motive in health. It is more like the Taliban trying to purify the planet than a systematic effort to make medicine more patient centered based on an mechanistic undestanding of how to predict and prevent illness. The purists skip right past personalized medicine because it is not part of the grand scheme to rid medicine of the corruption.

Quite the opposite, the evidence that expelling "commercial interests" from CME (I guess that would mean Danny Carlat and Howard Brody since they make money off books and lectures), academic detailing, state formularies based on so-called evidence based medicine, conflict free FDA advisory committees, the application of the precautionary principle to the development and use of medicine (don't use any new medicine for 7 years according to Public Citizen), turn over all drug development to government and shorten patents and of course a single payer system would improve health.

Academic detailing according to CATIE and ALLHAT? One size fits all medicine? Paying doctors to prescribe generic when will have genetic tests and algorithms that indicate otherwise? The attempt to discredit researchers who have worked or have received funding from pharma is an intellectually dishonest and weak way to simply not engage in discussion or consider important, mechanistically valid research. It is the new Lysenkoism.

You wouldn't know from all the rapid pharma hating that mortality and morbidity has been declining worldwide in direct proportion to the rate of introduction of new drugs, devices and surgical techniques. Medical technology has done more to advance and enhance humanity than anything else we could have come up with. Check that, the commercialization of medical technology.

Rather, the piling on is just an expression of a hatred of capitalism. To paraphrase Aaron Wildavsky, my critics see medical technology as part of the apparatus by which corporate capitalism maintains inequalities that harm society and the public health.

The piling on is a product of a particular view of how the world works. These are angry, fearful people who have a utopian plan to take medicine back to a pristine time that never existed. The disturbance is, in fact, in their psyche and souls. Their success in enacting their plan comes at the expense of the reputation of good scientists everywhere, trust in science generally and medical progress. To make themselves right, they would destroy others and rule over the rest.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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