The Marketing Starts Early
In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.
Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments. [Emphasis added]
PHARMA money, whether for "consulting" fees or for endowments is so pervasive and uncontrolled at Harvard that the medical school received an F grade from the American Medical Student Association, a group that evaluates how well medical schools monitor and control drug industry money. How embarrassing is that!
And there may be more red faces in the near future:
Harvard has fallen behind, some faculty and administrators say, because its teaching hospitals are not owned by the university, complicating reform; because the dean is fairly new and his predecessor was such an industry booster that he served on a pharmaceutical company board; and because a crackdown, simply put, could cost it money or faculty.
Further, the potential embarrassments — a Senate investigation of several medical professors, the F grade, a new state law effective July 1 requiring Massachusetts doctors to disclose corporate gifts over $50 — are only now adding to pressure for change.
The financial pressure Harvard and other colleges and universities are facing is exceptionally high at this point because the investment portfolios for endowments have dived along with the Dow. Private money is necessary for schools and obviously can't be ignored totally. Still, until Mr. Zerden made some noise about his professor's potential conflict of interest, the school's faculty members didn't have to disclose any information about their ties to the industry. At least now that information has to be made available to students in each class. Apparently the results are quite revealing: one professor’s disclosure in class listed 47 company affiliations.
The new dean of the medical school, Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, has also announced the formation of a new committee to review conflict of interest practices at the school, and that committee will be advised by Dr. David Korn who recently helped the Association of American Medical Colleges draft a model conflict-of-interest policy for medical schools. That's another good step, one, unfortunately, that is long overdue.
What is so exasperating, however, is that pharmaceutical companies, who whine about the high cost of research and development of their ground-breaking new drugs, allow their marketing departments to continue to spend millions to make sure doctors are on board with the companies' wishes.
And people wonder why prescription medicines are so expensive.