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Charles Ornstein: Leaders of Teaching Hospitals Have Close Ties to Drug Companies

April 3, 2014

Nearly every large drug maker based in the United States had at least one academic medical center official on its board, raising questions about their independence.

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Image from Flickr via Alex E. Proimois

By Charles Ornstein
By arrangement with ProPublica

Pharmaceutical company payments to doctors extend far beyond rank-and-file clinicians—and deep into the leadership of America’s teaching hospitals, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center examined the boards of the 50 largest drug companies by global sales (excluding three companies that were not publicly traded). The researchers found that 40 percent—19 companies—had at least one board member who also held a leadership role at an academic medical center. Sixteen of the 17 companies based in the United States had at least one. Several had more than one.

All told, the research team found that 41 of the companies’ 2012 board members held leadership positions at academic medical centers. Six of the 41 were pharmaceutical company executives who served on hospital boards of directors or held other leadership posts.

“These relationships present potentially far-reaching consequences beyond those created when individual physicians consult with industry or receive gifts.”

Excluding the industry executives, the academics earned an average of nearly $313,000 that year for their board service.

ProPublica has been chronicling conflicts of interest in medicine for several years by looking at drug makers’ payments to individual medical practitioners for consulting, speaking and more. Our Dollars for Docs database currently collects information on payments by 15 companies that publicly report them, most as a condition of lawsuit settlements with the federal government.

Beginning this fall, under a provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, all pharmaceutical and medical device companies will have to publicly report payments to physicians. The first report is expected to be released in September and will cover payments made from August to December 2013.

In the study published today, the authors wrote that when academic medical leaders serve on pharmaceutical company boards, it can lead to conflicts not only for individuals, but for the critically important health care institutions they guide.

As board members of drug companies, academic leaders take on a fiduciary duty to those companies’ success. That can “conflict or compete” with their other responsibilities, the study says.

“Given the magnitude of competing priorities between academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies, dual leadership roles cannot simply be managed by internal disclosure,” the authors conclude. “These relationships present potentially far-reaching consequences beyond those created when individual physicians consult with industry or receive gifts.”

Among the academic leaders serving as drug-company board members was the dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, whose institution was criticized recently when members of its surgery department appeared in an ad for the daVinci surgical robot.

Charles Ornstein, in collaboration with Tracy Weber, was a lead reporter on a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times titled “The Troubles at King/Drew” hospital that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for public service in 2005. His ProPublica series, with Tracy Weber, “When Caregivers Harm: California’s Unwatched Nurses” was a finalist for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Ornstein reported for the Times starting in 2001, in the last five years largely in partnership with Weber. Earlier, Ornstein spent five years as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He is a past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and a former Kaiser Family Foundation media fellow.

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