Should medical school deans have ties to pharma?

One of the first posts I wrote was a about how pharmaceutical reps provide lunch for physicians while presenting information about a medication that they are promoting.  The post, and others like it, have generated visceral reactions on the part of the public. A similar article to the one that I wrote prompted comments like “Get over yourself and buy your own lunch” and “I’m certainly glad that you are not my doctor.”

The opinions were so strong I was invited to speak on CNN about the topic. In particular, I was asked to speak about all the other extravagant things that physicians get from drug companies. I ultimately did not do the interview on account of me not having any experience with receiving any of the extravagant things they were talking about. It seemed to me that individual physicians receiving lunch was (excuse the pun) small potatoes compared to what happens behind closed doors in the halls of power. While upcoming rules will soon provide the public with a window into the value of goods provided to physicians by drug companies, they will provide little insight about where pharma has its greatest and most effective influence: behind the closed doors of those halls with thought leaders, opinion makers and legislators.

To that point, a story came to my attention recently that reminded me about that fact. The dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, a prestigious and highly regarded medical school, has apparently kept close financial ties with industry, as reported in the the college’s newspaper. The college’s Dean, a highly accomplished and awarded physician researcher, has retained positions with a major pharmaceutical company and a laboratory equipment company. In these roles last year she reportedly received about $260,000 from one of the companies and about $277,000 from the other last year. The Cornell Daily Sun also reports that she has apparently received millions of dollars in compensation from both companies over the years as well as more than a million dollars worth of shares and stock options in the companies.

As dean of a prestigious medical college, she must undoubtedly understand that she has the ability to influence the behaviors of thousands of future physicians, and the  power to lead by example. I find it appallingly hypocritical that, while the dean sits on the board of these companies, she is training future physicians who will be discouraged from receiving anything of value from the pharmaceutical industry.

To get a better understanding of the depth of this double standard, take a look at the pharmaceutical vendor policy of the medical college’s affiliated hospital. In an effort to control costs, they have significantly restricted the activities and access that pharmaceutical representatives have in their facility. This is fairly common practice among hospitals, as is the practice of restricting inpatient medications to cheaper generics whenever possible. Hospitals know that the presence of pharma reps increases costs by encouraging physicians to use the more expensive medications. Hospitals thus try to reduce the influence of the reps on physicians both by  removing the expensive alternatives from the hospital pharmacy, and by limiting access to pharma reps.

Like many other hospitals, reps here need to be credentialed and registered by the hospital before being allowed access. They must enter the facility through specific entrances designated for reps, and they may enter by appointment only. Furthermore, the hospital’s policy explicitly states that reps are not allowed to meet with medical students on hospital property. Nor do they allow free drug samples to be distributed by pharmaceutical representatives.

By now it should be exceedingly self evident why telling your students on one hand not to speak with pharmaceutical reps, and on the other taking millions of dollars from the same company would be hypocritical. That we should ask more of our medical educators and health care leaders is also self evident. And I could say a lot more, too. I could say how inappropriate this is, and ask that all medical college deans take a pledge to no longer take money from industry. But instead I would like to defer to a simple message which summed up what most people felt about a recent article on drug rep lunches that I think fairly and accurately sums up this situation as well. The comment, directed at the medical community, said simply and emphatically, “Who’s money do you think you’re spending? IT IS IMPROPER BEHAVIOR!”

Deep Ramachandran is a pulmonary and critical care physician who blogs at CaduceusBlog.  He can be reached on Twitter @Caduceusblogger.

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  • Just_A_Patient

    Hardly surprising. It is a known secret that physicians are influenced by drug companies. Look at those stationeries! Why print drug brand name on it? Why not inspiring quotes from famous people? why not ten commendments? People are already smart enough to figure out why.

    • Suzi Q 38

      If the pharma company is paying for it, why not put their name on it?

  • Benita Kurtzman

    Loads of “do as I say, not as I do”. Look at Congress, whose individual coffers are enriched by the pharmaceutical companies. Feeding somebody dinner while talking about a drug is pretty minor, compared to the billions disbursed to our “leaders”

    • Suzi Q 38

      Does that make it O.K.?
      If I get paid “under the table” for only $50.00 and my friend works under the table and receives $10,000.00, Am I the better person?

  • asb

    I think it should be legal so it could be out in the open. These individuals should be free of legal prosecution. This way we can freely pass moral judgement on them without ourselves being prosecuted.

  • drgg

    Good point. But I might add that it seems like as physicians we need a voice as to our opinions about –if you will ” diagnosing ” the problem–not just the legitimate question of how much do we interact with them. It’s interesting that there is so much in the news about pharma. They have the ability now to effectively extend their patents by buying off competing generic companies NOT to produce the generics once the patent has expired–or at least extend the period so that the only choice for patients is to buy the expensive brand name. Yes this is currently legal.

    With generics the FDA requirements are very lax so that there can be a large discrepancy in potency between one generic and another that can affect pt care. Perhaps most important is the shortage created for generics affecting our patients. You might say that these are policy issues that don’t involve us physicians or that courts or politicians can take over. But meanwhile it affects us in more ways than we might know….

  • Suzi Q 38

    Pharma hiring physicians to promote their products is nothing new or unusual. This has been happening for decades.
    They typically find the most influential physicians in the area, groom them to present a new treatment or surgical technique that involves the FDA indicated use of one or more of their products.
    They also hire physicians to conduct studies at the teaching hospitals, or work at the pharmaceutical company in some marketing capacity.
    This can be big additional income for the physician.
    Most physicians are all too happy to comply or accept.
    They also will glorify the positives of any drug, and look away at its negatives.

    Human nature at its best or worst, depending on how you look at it.

  • jff7122@yahoo.com

    Having been a pharmaceutical rep, I offer at least minimal insight from the physicans that I interacted with at lunches. The lunches were appreciated by all staff not just the physicians and this is not an uncommon practice in other industries. However, my gripe is not the lunches as much as an opportunity to update the physicians. When no reps are allowed, my physicians would contact and ask for samples and info for patients, which we could not supply. Physicians are intelligent and being informed on new drugs, side effects, and studies allows for an expanded treatment if and when those generics are ineffective. Additionally, the samples supplied to rural providers where a specific dosage or drug can be identified prior to the patient paying multiple copays, again, can benefit the demographics of that area. There has to be a middle that all can agree upon, where there is balance and still benefit to both provider and patient.