Conflict of Interest

Partners HealthCare is a Harvard Medical School offshoot that provides health care and runs two hospitals--Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's--which themselves are largely staffed by Medical School faculty, so that some 8,000 of Partners employees have Medical School appointments. Faculty meetings are held in the Boston Garden when the Celtics are out of town.

Partners HealthCare recently imposed a ban on faculty speaker fees from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, supplemented by limits (not a ban) on fees for serving on the board of directors of such firms. The goal is to help patients by curtailing conflicts of interest. Whether things will actually work out that way is highly doubtful. Judging by news reports, pharmaceutical companies typically tap high-level Partners employees--such as chief medical officers--for their boards. People in that kind of position oversee such vastly diverse medical decision-making that it is hard even to imagine why or how they subvert medical care to the interests of the firms on whose boards they serve. After all, they have to protect the reputations that attracted attention in the first place. Of course, they are eager to see new treatments emerge from the formidable research capabilities of the Harvard Medical complex, but the rules of the drug development game leave almost no room for anything beyond the paramount goal of finding out what actually works.

As for speaking fees, these typically go to outstanding faculty whose greatest assets, again, are academic reputations--precisely the reason they are tapped for speaking roles, advisors, and so on. That circumstance greatly diminishes the chances of patient harm. The real problem lies elsewhere, in the role of physician as both decider (you need surgery) and provider (I actually do this kind of surgery a couple of times a week!). The new Partners conflict-of-interest policy does nothing to address this timeless and persuasive conflict of interest.

John E. Calfee is a resident scholar at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Bluberries.

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About the Author

 

John E.
Calfee
  • Economist John E. Calfee (1941-2011) studied the pharmaceutical industry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with the economics of tobacco, tort liability, and patents. He previously worked at the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Economics. He had also taught marketing and consumer behavior at the business schools of the University of Maryland at College Park and Boston University. While Mr. Calfee's writings are mostly on pharmaceutical markets and FDA regulation, his academic articles and opinion pieces covered a variety of topics, from patent law and tort liability to advertising and consumer information. His books include Prices, Markets, and the Pharmaceutical Revolution (AEI Press, 2000) and Biotechnology and the Patent System (AEI Press, 2007). Mr. Calfee wrote regularly for AEI's Health Policy Outlook series. He testified before Congress and federal agencies on various topics, including alcohol advertising; biodefense vaccine research; international drug prices; and FDA oversight of drug safety.

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