Medical ethics and economics

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The balance between medical research and the pharmaceutical world has always been unsettling. The recent spate of articles in the press reporting the large payments by industry to a number of highly paid medical staff of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in New York has raised again the continuing issue around that relationship.

Dr. Sidney Goldstein is professor of medicine at Wayne State University and the division head emeritus of cardiovascular medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit.

Dr. Sidney Goldstein

When large sums of money are paid to medical leaders for serving on advisory boards, it is reasonable to question whom are they representing: industry or medical science. These relationships are not limited to cancer hospitals and can be presumed to pertain to cardiology and other specialties. One need only look at the disclosure statements of contemporary published articles to become aware of the entanglement of science and industry.

There is little question that both industry and science need to interact to focus direct resources to appropriate targets. No one is better able to do that than well informed scientists working in their disease fields. Industry needs scientific input and scientists need the financial resources of industry. I have been able to see that relationship play out to achieve major impacts on heart disease. But corporate decisions also can be driven by market forces and not altruism. Drug and device research has been redirected or stopped as a result of decisions made by sales forces. At other times, drugs that have great potential in the laboratory have been shelved because of a lack of scientific leadership.

So where is the moral and ethical balance? Published disclosures by authors is not much more than a catharsis in the process where action is required. Medical advisory boards are critical for successful drug and device development. That exchange is crucial to move medical science forward, but the large sums of money raise appropriate questions of what is driving the discussion.

At a more grass roots level, the financial role of investigators and hospitals in clinical trials has raised some concern. Traditionally, the institution and investigators have been reimbursed for their time and expense for recruiting and following patients. Patients, of course, are not reimbursed in clinical trials but are placed at considerable risk of an uncertain result. The reimbursements for marginal expenses seem to be appropriate. More recently, payments to physicians and hospitals have been made at current fee schedules for the implantation of a variety of new devices such as pacemakers and valves. In addition, both physicians and hospitals have invested in the financial success of these clinical trials clouding over their altruistic goals. It has been an incentive for recruiting patients for trials and has been a source of considerable revenue both for the physicians and the institution, without informing the patients of their financial relationship to industry. The image of the patient being placed at risk for the success of a clinical trial of a device by doctors and hospitals seeking financial gain is more than a little disturbing.

There is a lot of money sloshing around in the health care world that has the potential to lead to ethical uncertainty. It is the physician’s responsibility to build up ethical barriers to prevent us from slipping into that morass.

Dr. Goldstein is professor of medicine at Wayne State University and the division head emeritus of cardiovascular medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit.

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