What is a conflict of interest? One definition is thus: ‘A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.’
Or, in my simple world. ‘Someone pays you money. You then say or do things that you would not have said or done, if they hadn’t.’ The secondary interest doesn’t have to be directly monetary. It could be a promise of a promotion, or an invitation to be chairman of an important committee, or a chance to meet someone famous, or watch a world cup final, or suchlike.
However, for the sake of keeping things simple, we are talking about money here. We are talking about pharmaceutical companies paying money to medical ‘experts’, who may then say or do things that they would not otherwise have said or done.
The first problem is, thus. How do you know they would not have said or done it anyway? If the dairy industry paid me a million pounds to say ‘Dairy foods do not cause heart disease.’ This would be a bonus. Because it is what I believe, it is what I say already, and you really don’t need to pay me a million pounds to say it. [Although I am open to offers].
However, if I was paid a million pounds and I then said ‘dairy foods to do not cause heart disease’, and you discovered that the dairy industry had paid me a million pounds, what would you think? I know exactly what you would think. ‘I trusted him, now it turns out he is just lining his wallet, the same as everyone else.’ Some would state this more vehemently than others. However, any reputation that I have would never be the same again. There would always be that loss of trust. That doubt.
The people we admire and trust the most do not take backhanders. Pity.
For many years, pharmaceutical companies paid doctors ‘honoraria’, which is just a posh word for money. The doctors happily stuffed said honoraria into their bank balances, and no-one seemed much bothered. You did not need to declare any financial interests, and the only limitation on how much you got paid was your perceived value to the companies.
Your value was measured in a few different ways:
1. Ability to influence other doctors – your status as an ‘opinion leader’
2. Your quality as a speaker at meetings and/or ability to set up and run clinical trials
3. Your influence within the healthcare system i.e. do you advise Governments on treatment, do you sit on committees that advice NICE, or the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA)
4. Your position on Guideline committees. Can you play a key role in writing the guidelines that other doctors have to follow e.g. drug x a must be used first line in all patients with condition y.
These things are, of course, all linked. As an expert you start on rung one and two, and then move onto three and four. Your progress up this ladder requires very close links with the industry. You cannot influence other doctors if you haven’t done research, and it is very difficult to do research without industry funding. If not impossible.
At a certain point in the process, you become exceedingly important to the industry. In fact there are companies who support the pharmaceutical industry whose entire raison d’etre is to manage Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).
According to Dan Mintze, senior director, heartbeat experts, “The management of KOLs needs to be broader than identifying, segmenting, influence mapping and working with clinicians in order for products to gain clinical approval. Rather a comprehensive KOL solution which includes the identification and appropriate engagement of KOLs who impact market access decisions e.g. KOLs who serve as Government or payer advisory board members (see figure 3) should be adopted.” Such pharma-KOL engagement will lead to the development of value messages that can help pharma to access the market faster, gain quicker product adoption, and increase bottom line performance.’ [my words in bold] Original PDF here
The more you increase bottom line performance, the more you are worth, and the more you get paid. Strangely, some left-wing commies a.k.a ‘people’ began to object to this cosy relationship. A bit too much potential for the situation whereby… a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.
Luckily this problem was instantly solved, amid scenes of wild rejoicing, by ensuring that doctors who did major studies, or wrote articles and suchlike, must disclose their conflicts of interest. Once this had been done there was nothing to worry about, ever again. [joke]
Although, what we are supposed to do with a disclosure of interest has never really been explained. As a Swedish doctor wrote to me:
‘While we are at this: I have often wanted to ask the purpose of revealing possible/probable conflicts of interest. Just what are we supposed to do with that editorial caveat? Does it mean the data might be suspect? If the editors want us to know it is suspect then why do they publish it?
If it means we should interpret the data with caution, can someone tell me how one is to be cautious. Does it mean one believes none of it or does one believe some of it? If the latter then which part do we believe and/or which do we not believe. Just how are we supposed to judge these things, after having been warned to beware?
Indeed, what are we supposed to do? The other problem is that, whilst doctors are meant to declare their conflicts, quite often they do not. Here is an addendum taken from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
It was in response to an article which was written by a number of authors, who did not see to need report any of their conflicts. Some eagle eyed readers wrote in to complain, and the journal responded thus [I put in bold those companies who would have benefitted financially from the original paper]:
Unreported Financial Disclosures in: ‘Association of LDL Cholesterol, Non–HDL Cholesterol, and Apolipoprotein B Levels With Risk of Cardiovascular Events Among Patients Treated With Statins: A Meta-analysis.’
….the following disclosures should have been reported: “Dr Mora reports receipt of travel accommodations/meeting expenses from Pfizer; Dr Durrington reports provision of consulting services to Hoffman-La Roche, delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for Pfizer, and receipt of royalties from Hodder Arnold Health Press; Dr Hitman reports receipt of lecture fees and travel expenses from Pfizer, provision of consulting services on advisory panels to GlaxoSmithKline, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Eli Lilly, and Novo Nordisk, receipt of a grant from Eli Lilly, and delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for GlaxoSmithKline, Takeda, and Merck Sharp & Dohme; Dr Welch reports receipt of a grant, consulting fees, travel support, payment for writing or manuscript review, and provision of writing assistance, medicines, equipment, or administrative support from Pfizer, and provision of consultancy services to Edwards, MAP, and NuPathe; Dr Demicco reports having stock/stock options with Pfizer; Dr Clearfield reports provision of consulting services on advisory committees to Merck Sharp & Dohme and AstraZeneca; Dr Tonkin reports provision of consulting services to Pfizer, delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for Novartis and Roche, and having stock/stock options with CSL and Sonic Health Care; and Dr Ridker reports board membership with Merck Sharp & Dohme and receipt of a grant or pending grant to his institution from Amgen. (original JAMA correction here.)
As you can see, Paul Ridker had board membership with Merck Sharp and Dohme, and simply forgot the mention it. The authors’ collective punishment? Well, you have just seen it. Essentially, there is no punishment. A bit of momentary embarrassment, soon forgotten. [Although not by everybody, guys].
However, the steady pressure for doctors to provide disclosures of interest has had one major impact. It has made it a bloody site more difficult to know where the conflicts of interest might actually lie.
For it has been decreed….I don’t know who decreed, or agreed it, that if you are paid money directly by a pharmaceutical company, or say a PR company working for the industry, you have a financial conflict of interest that you must/should declare.
However, if you work for an organisation such as the Cleveland Clinic, or the Clinical Trials Research Unit (CTSU) in Oxford things are different. The clinic is paid money by the industry, and then the clinic pays you. This means that you are not conflicted in any way. You need not declare anything. Why?
I don’t know who stated that this is acceptable. As with most things in this area we are in a shadow world full of ghostly apparitions that elude your grasp. ‘They said it was fine.’ And who, exactly, are they. There is no oversight committee here, no investigations carried out, no rulebook, no punishment. Just a very woolly gentlemen’s agreement amongst the great and the good of medical research.
However, because it has been agreed, in some mysterious way, that ‘second hand’ payments are fine, it means that those working at the Cleveland Clinic, the CTSU, and suchlike, feel able to state that they have no financial conflicts – at all. Even if the organisation they work for earns hundreds of millions, or billions, in industry funding.
If those working at the CTSU do, somehow, find themselves working directly with the industry, they now give any money they might have eared to charity. To quote their rules on the matter:
Guidelines for CTSU staff with respect to honoraria and any
other payments offered and share ownership
d: If an honorarium is declined, the intended CTSU recipient can still mention that a
corresponding amount might be donated to a specific charity.
A corresponding amount to a specific charity. What charity?
‘I guess if I had any advice for reporters, I would say, ask your local university if they’ve set up any associated [non-profit organizations]; many universities have an associated charity or foundation through which they solicit donations from corporate sponsors to support medical research. Find out about who those corporate sponsors are. Unfortunately, many universities set up these associated charities and foundations in such a way that they don’t have to disclose much publicly – ask about that, you know, try to push.’ (original article here)
Push away, but I don’t expect you will get very far.
Anyway, we are now supposed to believe that highly qualified and very influential KOLs, who work at the CTSU in Oxford, carry out work on behalf pharmaceutical companies for no payment, whatsoever. This is just charity work. Helping impoverished pharmaceutical companies is the same, really, as helping starving orphans in Africa.
Strangely, it appears that the CTSU doesn’t mind in the least that their staff are spending large chunks of their professional life helping pharmaceutical companies – out of the goodness of their hearts. The CTSU gets nothing; the pharmaceutical companies get nothing, other than a warm glow in their hearts. Meanwhile a ‘specific charity’ is doing rather well. Whatever that specific charity may be?
Of course the CTSU itself does rather well from the industry. Just for carrying out one of their many studies, REVERSE, they received £96million ($155million) from Merck Sharp and Dohme.
Yet, despite the huge sums of industry money sloshing about in the CTSU there are absolutely no conflicts of interest going on here. We are told this by none other than the CTSU itself. No-one is paid money directly by the industry in any way. So that is fine.
As Robbie Burns said: ‘O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us. It wad frae monie a blunder free us.’
As a sort of footnote to this blog, you may be interested to know that the Cholesterol Treatment Triallists Collaboration (CTT) in Oxford is probably the most influential organisation in directing the management of CV disease around the world.
The ACC/AHA guidelines launched last year in the US are based on the latest CTT meta-analysis; as are the latest NICE guidelines in the UK. The Cochrane Collaboration, which is also highly influential world-wide, changed their guidance on the use of statins in primary prevention, based on the CTT meta-analysis.
In short, if you want to identify a group of KOLs who can truly increase ‘bottom line performance’, you will not find any organisation more powerful than this. Best of all, CTT have absolutely no conflicts of interest with the pharmaceutical industry either. If you want to contact the CTT about any of this, you can e-mail them at: CTT@ctsu.ox.ac.uk