Progress is Possible in the Institutional Corruption of Healthcare

By Christopher Robertson

Today, there are two big stories that relate to the “institutional corruption” of medicine (aka conflicts of interests).  For those who have been working long and hard on these issues, they are cause for hope.  The needle does move.

First, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, has decided that it will stop paying doctors to promote their drugs.   My prior work has shown that such payments are quite common (e.g., 61% of urologists and 57% of gastroenterologists taking money), and that they likely influence the prescribing decisions of the doctors who take such money.  In recent months, Glaxo has made several such moves towards greater transparency and integrity, often as a result of threatened or actual criminal prosecutions.  (See their newfound commitment to opening up their clinical trial data too.)

The NYT story quotes an industry consultant suggesting that the move to stop paying physicians is a result of the Affordable Care Act’s “sunshine” requirement that such payments will be disclosed, and that several other drugmakers are considering similar moves. I am a bit skeptical that the disclosure mandate had such an effect, since the disclosures were already required by Massachusetts and other states, and as part of the “corporate integrity agreements” that came of several federal prosecutions.  My sense is that such disclosures are not likely to reach patients in a useable way, so its hard to understand how the transparency could really impose much of a disincentive on the companies.  Yet, something has caused Glaxo to change course.

Second, the National Football League has decided to give the National Institute of Health $30 million to study brain injuries.  The counterfactual is that the NFL could have kept the money, of course.  But the more interesting alternative is that the NFL could have just spent the money itself, hand-picking the researchers and carefully specifying how the research should be performed, in order to buy the scientific conclusions that it preferred. This has been the classic strategy of industries facing litigation risk, from tobacco, to asbestos, and now the paper industry, whose law firm actually commissions scientific studies on its behalf.  The NFL’s move instead proves that it is possible for a self-interested party to nonetheless fund independent, credible, gold-standard research, by using an intermediary, such as the NIH.

This is exactly the sort of reform that I have called for, as an alternative to the false dichotomy between public funding and private interest. For companies that have a bona fide interest in discovering and publicizing the scientific truth, a credible intermediary like the NIH can reassure consumers of scientific information that it is valid.  Now, if only we can get big pharmaceutical companies to make the same move for their clinical trials and other scientific research studies.  Perhaps the first-movers will be the most innovative companies who have bona fide products and are tired of them being lost in the cheap talk?  If physicians making prescribing decisions continue to give greater credence towards NIH-funded research, such integrity could be rewarded.

 EDIT:  Corrected link to NFL story on NYT, and corrected amount from $100M to $30M.  Also, disclaimer: I am not involved in this Petrie Flom Center collaboration with the NFL, and the views expressed here are entirely my own.

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