Marisa Peryer

Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern accepted more industry payments than any other U.S. medical school dean during the 2018 fiscal year. 

According to data released by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services last week, Alpern received $648,183 from the pharmaceutical companies Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, Inc in 2018. Alpern, who serves on the board of directors of both companies, was the highest paid physician at Abbvie and second highest at Abbott. Of Alpern’s total industry payments from 2018, he received about $162,000 for food, drink, travel and lodging. 

In a statement to the News, Alpern defended his payments, calling them “similar to those received by many deans who serve on corporate boards.” But the 2018 data shows that it is rare for U.S. medical school deans to forge such strong financial relationships to the industry. Flanking Alpern is University of Michigan Medical School Dean Marschall Runge, who received about $282,000 from the industry last year, and Weill Cornell Medicine Dean Augustine Choi, who received $16,000.

Alpern’s payments are far larger than the average amount accepted by doctors: U.S. physicians received an average $3,463 from the industry last fiscal year, and payments to nephrologists like Alpern averaged $2,363, according to the government data. 

Alpern told the News that his relationships to the industry comply with University policies. 

“I am rarely in a position to make decisions at Yale that could be influenced by my board positions,” Alpern wrote in a statement to the News. “My conflicts are all disclosed to Yale and in the rare circumstance when there is any potential conflict of interest, I recuse myself and/or publicly disclose that I serve on these boards.

Alpern did not respond to the News’ question regarding how the $162,000 payment for food, drink, travel and lodging was specifically spent and if he thought it was an appropriate amount to spend on those expenses during a fiscal year. 

University spokesperson Karen Peart noted that the University encourages its faculty members to engage in “sponsored research, consulting, and other activities that may benefit not only the participants but also the university and society at large.”

The Michigan and the Cornell dean did not respond to the News’ request for comment. 

Researchers with industry ties are often the world’s leading experts on drug development in their field, School of Medicine ophthalmology and visual science chair Luciano Del Priore said in an interview with the News in February. 

But bioethicists, health policy experts and doctors — including Del Priore — told the News that money in medicine becomes problematic when scientists fail to comprehensively disclose their commercial relationships in published research.

In 2017, Alpern failed to disclose a relevant conflict of interest in a study examining the effectiveness of a new treatment by the pharmaceutical company Tricida, Inc. A joint report by The New York Times and ProPublica revealed that Alpern, the senior author of the study, did not declare that he served on Tricida’s board of directors and owned shares of its stock when submitting the article for publication. 

The joint report also stated that all co-authors of Alpern’s study submitted incomplete disclosures of their financial ties to the industry. 

Rajnish Mehrotra, editor in chief of the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology that published Alpern’s 2017 study, told the News in February that the journal planned to implement a stricter disclosure policy in the wake of the scandal. 

In the 2017 fiscal year, Alpern accepted over $500,000 from the pharmaceutical industry.