Med. school seeks more transparency

In light of national criticism facing Harvard Medical School, three first-year Yale medical school students are organizing a campuswide effort to minimize pharmaceutical companies’ influence on education.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley is currently probing the details of three Harvard psychiatrists who did not properly report receiving at least $4.2 million from Pfizer Pharmaceuticals between 2000 and 2007, while concurrently promoting antipsychotic medicines for children, The New York Times reported Tuesday. The senator is asking Pfizer for information about payments made to at least 149 faculty members at Harvard Medical School, according to the Times.

In a national survey of medical schools administered by the American Medical Students Association last year, Harvard Medical School received an “F” grade on how well it controls the pharmaceutical industry’s payments to faculty. Over the past two years, Yale’s rating on the same survey has dropped from an “A” to a “C.”

By noon today, the three Yale student organizers will send an e-mail calling for Yale medical school administrators to adopt stricter guidelines about faculty members’ drug industry ties. In an earlier e-mail sent to Yale medical students Wednesday, the group said it hopes administrators will realize the importance of making the school’s guidelines on conflicts of interest technically binding, as well as of the need for full disclosure of all teaching faculty’s ties to the drug industry.

At present, the medical school has two policies governing conflicts of interest. The first mandates the full disclosure of drug companies’ sponsorship of and involvement with faculty research. The second — the subject of the current contention — encourages, but does not require, faculty members to disclose all payments received from drug companies.

Yale received a PharmFree rating of “C” because this latter policy is not mandatory and the school does not police the issue, Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said.

“We have to trust the faculty because we only know what they tell us,” he said. “There is no other way for us to know.”

(Ironically, when the rating system was first instituted, Yale received an “A” because it was the first school to have a policy governing non-research industry payments to faculty, he said.)

While medical students feel changes to the system are necessary, there are some indications that it has already changed: Over the past five years, drug companies’ presence at the school has diminished considerably, Alpern said. For instance, the medical school limits the number of venues on campus where pharmaceutical representatives can host presentations. It also pays for any talks pharmaceutical representatives give on campus.

Still, the Yale chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, an international student-led nonprofit organization, believes Yale needs an explicit policy mandating full disclosure of all faculty members’ drug industry ties.

“It is important to make the distinction between scientific agendas and policy agendas,” Sara Crager MED ’12, a joint M.D./doctoral candidate, said.

The drug industry’s desire to fund research will not likely change and is in many ways constructive, Alpern said.

“Interactions between the pharmaceutical industry and academia are important — that’s how we advance health care,” he said. “On the other hand, we have to be very careful. When physicians start selling their souls for money, they start doing things that are not in the best interest of their profession. A few bad apples give the medical profession a bad name.”

Yale’s West Campus will provide an opportunity for the University to foster research and develop important connections with pharmaceutical companies on a larger scale than was previously possible, Vice Rresident for West Campus Planning and Development Michael Donoghue said. Yale is currently engaged in discussions with pharmaceutical companies about potential partnerships, he added.

“The whole idea is to figure out what the best type of relationship is that will take academic research and translate it into something of industrial significance,” Donoghue said. “It’s worthwhile and ought to be encouraged.”

Harvard officials said 1,600 of the medical school’s 8,900 professors and lecturers reported having a direct or indirect financial interest in a business related to their research or clinical practice, but did not specify details, the Times reported Tuesday.

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