Should Docs Disclose Drug Company Ties?

One doctor said that one of the glaring failures of the full disclosure policies is that disclosures presently rely largely on physician self-reporting, and it is not clear whether or not any institutions actually check to see how completely and accurately their doctors disclose their financial relationships. In this sense, what is "fully disclosed" could easily be just the tip of the iceberg.

"Determination of conflict of interest is a bit more sophisticated than listing doctors and fees," said Dr. Alan Leff, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "It requires that any fee paid to a physician as a consultant is not related to a quid-pro-quo agreement that he or she will use their equipment or perform the company's studies."

"However, I would say now that a major percentage of studies done in my field are done through private practice physicians, who are paid for each patient recruited and for each stage of completion of the study."

At least part of the push toward full disclosure is motivated by congressional pressures on many of the top medical centers. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has spearheaded investigations into undisclosed payments to physicians by pharmaceutical companies.

In July, Sen. Grassley wrote a letter to Stanford University which was published in the Congressional Record. In it, he contended that Dr. Alan Schatzberg, chairman of psychiatry at Stanford University, did not provide all of the documentation necessary for a full disclosure of his investments in a pharmaceutical company that he founded. Sen. Grassley's office said that Schatzberg reported that he had more than $100,000 worth of investments in the company, Corcept Therapeutics, though his investments actually totaled more than $6 million.

However, Stanford University subsequently released a public statement explaining that the University's disclosure forms only ask researchers to disclose whether they held over $100,000 worth of investments, which Schatzberg did. For this reason, the University maintains that Schatzberg fully disclosed his investments based on the University's and the National Institutes of Health's guidelines for disclosure.

"In response to Senator Grassley's letter, Stanford University said that Dr. Schatzberg had fully complied with all conflict of interest policies both those of the University and of the National Institute of Mental Health," said Paul Costello, executive director of the office of communication and public affairs at Stanford University. "Dr. Schatzberg did, in fact, disclose the actual value of his stock in Corcept Therapeutics to Stanford as required in his ad hoc disclosures."

Conflict of Interest

Some experts believe that the push for full disclosure is a double-edged sword, doing about as much harm to the U.S. health-care system as it does good.

"We, as physicians cannot do the things we do and provide the care we provide ... without the tools provided by industry," said Dr. Laurence Epstein, chief of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "Conversely, the companies would not know what to develop or how to refine the technology without the input from physicians. Physicians should be fairly compensated for the time they spend on these endeavors."

Others agreed that the pharmaceutical industry plays a key role in providing funding for continuing medical education as well as research into cutting-edge treatments and technologies.

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