Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘pharma’

Better Understanding Conflict of Interest By Studying Bias

So much strum und drang in the air. So many panties in a bunch. The offensitive are on the warpath about, well, everything. We seem to have a surfeit of ethicists among us, proclaiming in nearly real time where anything and everything fits on some mythical ethics grid. To them I offer my own filter, the question I ask before I expend an iota of energy of any kind on the type of “news” that has them all so agitated:

Is what I am viewing unethical, or simply unseemly?

Ethics is a synonym for morals. As such it should be universal and timeless. Ethics should bear nothing in common with fashion.

Speaking of which, it is fashionable in pretty much any field in which expertise can be obtained and the label “expert” attained to lay waste to those so acclaimed by accusing them of having a “conflict of interest”. Traditionally this meant that one might enjoy some sort of tangible gain by trafficking in one’s area of expertise, thereby rendering the expert’s stated opinions somehow tainted. Of late it means that being employed by someone with whom your critic has a beef means your standing to hold an opinion at all is nullified.

Nonsense.

We would be a wiser society if we instead made an effort to sort through the biases held by experts in any field. To demand that one not express any opinion that would support your employ should disqualify the individual who holds such a position, not the expert. To look at the bias that may be present in any expert opinion allows the audience to better evaluate both the veracity of the opinion, as well as its relevance to their own situation. For example, in my day job I have a strong bias to treat any condition that produces meaningful symptoms in my patients.

In truth, in many of the general categories that I cover my remuneration is identical whether or not I treat. Those who bleat on about conflict of interest would seek to nullify all of my thoughts simply because I make my living in the arena on which I opine. Again, this is silly. It is far more useful to read my professional writing through the prism of my pro-treatment bias. In so doing it is far easier to compare and contrast my public opinions with others in my space who may differ. Do they differ on substance, or do they differ because or a countervailing bias?

This is not to say that conflicts of interest do not exist, or that if they do exist that they are never a problem. If you have invented a medical device and choose to use your own device rather than a competitor’s you have a COI. Disclosure of your COI should be mandatory (I disclose all consulting contracts around prescription drugs, for example). If they are of equal quality (equal safety, equivalent outcomes), the COI is mooted. If your device is much more expensive (thereby generating much more income to you), your conflict of interest is unseemly but not necessarily unethical. It should be obvious on its face that using your invention if it is less effective (or Heaven forbid, unsafe) is unethical.

Expertise exists everywhere. Here, on CrossFit.com in the fitness world. Would you disqualify Greg Glassman because CrossFit has been a successful business? How about Jeff and Mikki Martin who have launched a business in the same space? Is their competition a conflict that nullifies their contributions to youth fitness? Among the bureaucrats at the EPA in the care of the environment. Do they not have a contribution to make despite their tax-supported position? Is their (presumed) anti-business bias a reason to dismiss all federal policy? Among the various and sundry talking heads on all of the financial offerings on cable news channels. Don’t you really want them to be rich and successful, especially if you are going to follow their advice?

If we seek to understand the biases that exist underneath the opinions of experts we can better evaluate the conflicts of interest that they inevitably carry along with those opinions. From there is is an easier task to evaluate the character of those conflicts, and better decide whether or not we accept their guidance.

Getting paid to be an expert and to share your expertise is only a meaningful conflict of interest if it is unseemly or unethical, not just unfashionable.

 

The Folly of Trendy Physician/Industry Regulation

I want Dick Lindsrom’s old job. Hell, DICK LINDSTROM  wants Dick Lindstrom’s old job! I mean, seriously, who WOULDN’T  want Dick Lindstrom’s old job? The  guy was the highest paid consultant for not one, not two, not even three, but something like FIVE ophthalmic manufacturing companies AT THE SAME TIME. Oh yeah…he was also the most famous ophthalmologist on the planet, and just happened to be a fantastic surgeon, too. He’s still got those last two things going on as far as I can tell.

Eventually someone is going to have to take up the mantle. Dick has been 59 years old for 10 or 11 years now, and he’s sure to turn the big 6-O at some point and decide to “retire early”. When he  does choose to do that, or if he is driven out of the consulting business by all of the petty new restrictions on physician relationships with industry (and vice versa) it will be a sad day, indeed. Not only for  the entrie ophthalmic community mind you, but also for the legions of patients-to-be who will NOT benefit from his influence and guidance.

Allow me to explain. Several years ago some folks in government and some consumer goody-twoshoey types all of a sudden “discovered” that doctors were consulting for companies that made medicines and things like implants and the like. They also “discovered” to their collective horror that these same companies not only paid these consulting doctors, but they also sometimes did “gifty” stuff for doctors and their staff members. Terrible stuff like, I dunno, buy lunch for the office or leave a bunch of logo pens or sticky notes around the nursing stations. Even more recently the startling discovery was made that these same pharmaceutical and medical device companies have been supporting post-graduate medical education.

The horror…the horror… (apologies to Conrad).

Dick Lindstrom has been one of the most influential clinical investigators in all of medicine for more than 25 years. By this I mean that he has suggested, launched, led, participated in, and reported on to his colleagues so many studies that led to ground-breaking clinical breakthroughs that his legacy must be considered not only in eyecare but in ALL of medicine. If you had a better medicine, or if you made a better cataract machine, chances are Dick not only had a hand in its development, but he also jumped to your better widget even if your competitors were paying him to consult on theirs. Patient first.

The guy just couldn’t be bought, in my opinion. Not only did he always choose whatever medicine or instrument was best at any given time, but his widespread, almost omnipresent involvement across the industry gave him a platform to push each competing company to outdo its competition. A continuous daisy-chain of technological advancement with Dick Lindstrom as ringleader. And now this small-minded, short-sighted movement would have Dick give up either his consulting or his clinical practice. Did I mention that he’s been among the most talented practicing eye surgeons for 25 years, too?

The food and goodies part of this stuff is inconvenient (I bought pens for the first time in my adult life this year), but really not much more. It does make the jobs of the industry reps more difficult, and frankly just seems to be mean-spirited and  petty. I mean…come on…if Dick Lindstrom hasn’t been swayed by the massive sums he’s been paid by companies for whom he has consulted, how insulting is it that the prevailing opinion in Washington and elsewhere is that MY choices can be bought for a Subway foot-long?! Seriously?

The development of new technologies and new medicines is expensive. So, too, is the post-graduate continuing education of our nation’s physicians. They can’t occur in the vacuum of the laboratory, nor can they occur in the vacuum of the boardroom. The people who do this work need the assistance of doctors who not only take care of patients but who also understand both research and business. To prevent pharmaceutical and medical device companies from supporting programs for continuing education, while at the same time allowing these same companies to market directlty to patients, is simultaneously the most cynical and naive hypocracy imaginable.

To erect arbitrary and artificial barriers that prevent people like Dick Lindstrom from making the kinds of contributions for which he is justly famous (and for which he has been appropriately compensated) is pure folly. Folly which approaches madness.

Here’s the rub…I don’t think any doctors are going to quit what they’re doing because we have to buy our own pens, and I doubt that any of us will hang up our spurs just because we now have to make our own sandwiches for lunch. I AM concerned that participation in major medical meetings will decrease if it becomes more expensive because industry support is legislated away. I AM concerned that doctors of all types will do only the minimum continuing education necessary to mantain their licensure. I AM concerned that these foolish proposals that seek to prohibit clinical educators from also receiving compensation for consulting will dramatically reduce the quality of whatever education we might be receiving.

To do ANYTHING that might prevent Dick Lindstrom from being Dick Lindstrom is pure folly, and I AM concerned about that.

Wait…wait a minute. Could that be it? Could the whole problem simply be Dick? That it’s really just a Dick Lindstrom problem? Is it possible that all of these regulations, the no-pen/no-lunch rules, all of the nonsense about educators and leaders being prohibited from simultaneously having consulting agreements is all just a huge anti-Dick Lindstrom thing?

Well…why didn’t you say so? We can fix this thing right tidy-like. I want to make contributions to my field that will stand the test of time. I want to be known as a clinician/investigator/consultant who always put his patients first before any and all other considerations. I want colleagues to look at a new technology and have the first words out of their mouths be: “What do you think Darrell White thinks about this?” And not for nothing, I wouldn’t mind having those vintage consulting contracts. In a word, I want Dick Lindstrom’s old job. Who wouldn’t?

Because we all need SOMEONE who’s willing and capable of being Dick Lindstrom when he finally turns 60…