Did ProPublica unfairly target Dr. Yoav Golan?

A recent ProPublica expose co-published with the Boston Globe typifies a growing gotcha genre of health journalism that portrays doctors as the enemy in a struggle for honesty and openness in medicine. These reports make unfounded leaps in their efforts to subject doctors to levels of skepticism once reserved for politicians and lawyers. They’re going to end up doing patients a disservice. For this particular hunting expedition ProPublica set its sights on Dr. Yoav Golan, an infectious diseases specialist caring for patients at Tufts Medical Center in Boston who also works with pharmaceutical companies developing antibiotics. But in its zeal to argue how physicians like Golan are corrupting medicine through their industry partnerships, ProPublica went to press without an iota of evidence Golan is corrupt. A close look at Golan’s impressive career suggests quite the contrary and raises questions about ProPublica’s claim to objectivity.

Yoav Golan is a remarkably bad choice for anyone who hopes to use him as a poster boy of pharma-physician malfeasance. As Tufts said in a statement in response to the ProPublica story, Golan enjoys international respect in the infectious diseases community and has assisted the development of “two important antibiotics, including the first antibiotic developed in the past 25 years to treat the growing threat of deadly C. difficile.” (Disclosure: I held an academic appointment at Tufts for one year when I was practicing in Boston, but in another department and I never met Golan before this story.)

That antibiotic, fidaxomicin, is pricey, and you’d think an industry shill would liberally advise its use. Yet Golan and his team advised a Tufts committee setting internal standards for its use that the hospital should heavily restrict the drug. “We were very active in making sure it’s not used in pathways where it’s not cost effective,” Golan told me. Golan’s colleagues all have access to the details of his industry relationships, and all patients enrolling in his trials are provided the dollar amounts too. Golan is sought after on the grand rounds speaker circuit precisely because of his work in developing conservative decision matrices that emphasize cost effectiveness and responsible antibiotic stewardship.

One of Golan’s more influential studies, published in the top-shelf journal Annals of Internal Medicine, recommended a drug transitioning to generic, fluconazole, instead of a newer more expensive agent, caspofungin, when ICU patients are thought to be suffering from severe fungal infections. The analysis hinged on cost effectiveness. The study is similar to a trend in recent industry-funded antibiotic research; most studies, which are double-blinded such that no party can influence the outcome, find the new drug isn’t superior.

This isn’t the first time national media has highlighted Golan’s industry work for the wrong reasons; in both cases journalists seemed to have little understanding of their subject’s contributions to medicine, or indeed the precise details of the moral crime they allege he committed. Last fall the New York Times implied Golan is exempt from Tufts’ conflict-of-interest (COI) regulations because he’s not a staff physician there. To the contrary Golan started as a Tufts fellow in 1999 and has been an attending physician employed directly by the medical center since 2002. During that time he’s never run afoul of any of the hospital’s extensive COI policies, which include a well-structured program involving senior physicians and administrators that monitor all physician-industry relationships. “We very much value productive collaboration and we have safeguards in place to ensure the work is done ethically and to the benefit of patients and medicine,” the medical center told me.

Dr. Daniel Carlat, director of the prescription project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, a leading organization promoting transparency of physician-industry interactions, told me he also thought Golan was an odd subject for such media scrutiny. A Pew task force charged with advising medical centers on how best to manage their industry relationships recently issued a comprehensive slate of recommendations.  ”We support appropriate relationships with industry,” Carlat told me, “financial relationships that are related to research are completely appropriate.” Describing Pew’s recommendations for academic medical centers like Tufts, Carlat says they “do not preclude appropriate research relationships.” Carlat holds an academic appointment with the Tufts department of psychiatry.

For ProPublica’s part, sloppy data leads to sloppy analysis. It claims Golan received $9,062 for his research and was paid an additional $29,750 for speaking and consulting, all from Pfizer. Golan did speak and consult for Pfizer but he says the research grant was made by Wyeth, which was subsequently acquired by Pfizer, and his speaking and consulting for Pfizer had nothing to do with the Wyeth research. Such facts don’t neatly support ProPublica’s thesis that speaking and consulting serve as industry’s mechanism to garner additional influence with physicians. The numbers often deserve further explanation, as Golan himself didn’t receive that research money. For example in 2012, $12,050 from Merck went directly to Tufts for administrative expenses on a planned trial. Golan himself actually received no payments for the trial in that year.

This disregard for the details carries on to the strange selection of Golan as a subject at all. Golan was merely an example in a piece that really speaks to the lax policies of Tufts Medical Center, ProPublica’s Charlie Ornstein told me about his article, which featured a large picture of Yoav Golan, not Tufts Medical Center. “Other prestigious centers like Harvard found that they can’t manage these relationships well, why does Tufts think it can,” he said. That Tufts made a very considered decision to carefully navigate these funding sources means little to ProPublica since other top medical centers have decided differently, barring or heavily restricting the level of industry collaboration Tufts engages in. Yet the NIH encourages private industry collaboration. Researchers trying to determine appropriate antibiotic treatment populations for patented antibiotics are referred to the companies that hold the patents. There is woefully insufficient public money for all the antibiotic research we need, and indeed the NIH and similar European agencies are now actively pursuing public-private partnerships that harness the profit-seeking motives of private corporations for public good, while crafting deals that let the public share in the commercial upside of successful new antibiotic development.

ProPublica reveals some of its bias when trying to drive home how much money Golan makes. Any money he earns through industry collaboration “is on top of what he earns for treating patients,” ProPublica states, failing to understand that physicians enjoy the right do additional work for additional compensation just as any high level professional might in any other field. “They obviously think physicians should do nothing but charity work,” says Dr. George Bakris, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago and editor of the American Journal of Nephrology, where Golan published work last yearabout challenges tackling clostridium difficile infections in chronic kidney disease patients. (Golan does in fact do substantial charity work: he’s spent 13 years donating care to Boston prisoners infected with HIV.)

Golan’s work is “above board and beyond reproach,” says Bakris. Dr. Sherwood Gorbach, editor of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, where Golan has published 10 articles, describes him as the journal’s “go-to” peer reviewer for studies in immunocompromised patients, and has never heard a negative word about Golan’s work.

ProPublica’s reporting techniques are better suited to the world of politics. There, a clearer relationship can often be drawn between donations and political outcomes. In medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, the flow of money in and of itself can not so easily be characterized as an exercise of influence; rather it is the lifeblood of research and the development of new treatments.

That’s not to say that ProPublica’s concerns aren’t legitimate: There are no doubt specific cases of malfeasance out there awaiting discovery. Many institutions have put up more barriers than Tufts, and it’s reasonable to ask why Tufts made the decision it did. Tufts has answered that question. The past is riddled with clear cases of abuse, including companies that paid doctors generously as consultants when the doctors weren’t actually contributing anything of value to the enterprise. That type of graft no longer exists in responsible pharmaceutical companies. Many observers don’t understand accepting company money to give academic lectures, and while I wouldn’t speak for company money, I certainly wouldn’t focus a high profile media expose on anyone in particular unless I had clear evidence they’ve been corrupted. I’d want to know that the physician gave biased lectures in exchange for the money, conducted biased research or accepted a sinecure consulting gig.

ProPublica has no such evidence when it comes to Yoav Golan, though they’d have little trouble finding other physicians who have essentially become pharma salespeople. Traveling to speak is an expensive enterprise that takes time away from reimbursed clinical work. There’s a legitimate argument for paying physician speakers. What about Ornstein’s point that Tufts isn’t Harvard? Each institution can set the policies it thinks best serve its mission, and Pew’s recommendations are a good place to start. Golan is working by the rules at his institution, which contain numerous safeguards and strong similarities to Pew’s recommendations, which allow for industry funding of research and scientific consulting relationships, and recommend against “promotional” speaking.

The way ProPublica handled Yoav Golan should remind us that the organization isn’t print’s answer to NPR or PBS. Last year I wrote about how ProPublica used a Medicare prescription database to unfairly malign an Oklahoma psychiatrist. That reporting, too, erred by failing to understand the actual work and practice of a physician committed to the care of vulnerable populations. ProPublica is an advocacy campaign whose unwavering commitment to the concept that medicine and industry shall not intertwine involves enlisting legacy media brands like the Boston Globe in their effort to steamroll the reputations of good doctors. They hope for an impossible world in which potential COIs aren’t managed as carefully as Golan manages his, because other interests simply don’t exist. Research is to be the reserve of scientific clerics or uninspired automatons who don’t navigate the real world. ProPublica’s absolutist pursuit of this new public policy threatens the innovation engine we all rely on for our next cure.

I asked Golan what he thought about the fact that people who know nothing about him will now be weighing ProPublica’s report when they Google him. With a sigh, he says “the most important thing for me is whether I draw right conclusion or not, or benefit people or not.” Golan’s patients and the field of infectious diseases benefit precisely because of how he manages his priorities. We’re lucky they’re funded.

Ford Vox is a physician and journalist. This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.

View 2 Comments >

Most Popular