- Introduction: Conflicting Interest in Medicine: Stories by Physicians on How Financing Affects Their Work
Physicians frequently enter into special relationships that establish personal financial interests that could conflict with their patients’ best interests. Examples include receiving gifts from drug companies, sharing a patent on a medical device, or accepting funding from industry to conduct a drug study. In recent years, such “conflicts of interests” in medicine have received growing attention from medical associations (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2008, 2010), policy bodies (Institute of Medicine, 2009), industry (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, 2008), journalists (Caputo, 2009; Nguyen, Ornstein, & Weber, 2010), and even Congress, which included in the 2010 Patient Protection Affordable Care Act a Physician Payment Sunshine provision requiring industry to report a wide variety of ties to physicians. All of these efforts appear motivated by a similar assumption: Gifts and financially beneficial relationships can unconsciously motivate physicians to prioritize their own or industry’s interests over patients’ interests when providing care, conducting medical research, or educating physicians (American Association of Medical Colleges, 2008; Dana & Loewenstein, 2003).
The call for stories produced for this narrative symposium provided the following request:
We are interested in hearing about positive and negative experiences associated with a variety of financial relationships. The stories should give readers a sense of what it is like to be a physician in the midst of complex relationships to industry, physician practices, and third–party payers—relationships that go beyond ordinary reimbursement for care or research expenses.
Obtaining stories proved more challenging than anticipated for reasons related to our theme. Precisely because access to physicians is considered valuable, it is highly restricted. Listservs and blogs that serve physicians typically prohibit postings from anyone except physician members, and even they are sometimes not allowed to post messages freely. While at least one listserv circulated our call to members (at the request of a member), others rejected our request, and one blog offered to post our call as a 1–month ad for $20,000. This contrasts radically with the relatively easy access we have had to other groups, including mental health consumers and living organ donors, who have broad grass root communication systems, and bioethicists, who have several listservs and blogs that readily share news about relevant scholarly opportunities.
The collection of stories obtained resulted from extensive personal networking and a small amount of arm twisting. The collection was not what we expected to obtain, but is in many ways even more interesting. One story (Hodges) explicitly addresses the impact that pharmaceutical representatives can have on prescribing patterns—the classic, voluntary, conflicted relationship, insofar as sales reps are [End Page 65] welcomed in facilities, often bearing free samples, free lunches, and glossy articles on their products, all in the hopes of influencing prescribing patterns. But most stories do not fit the typical mold found in discussions of conflicts of interest. Among those expressing concerns about the impact of financial factors on medical practice, one focuses on the insufficient management of bias within the Food and Drug Administration (Perlmutter); three focus on the bias that is introduced through our current fee–for–service reimbursement system (Mikulec, Nagaldine, and Zientek)—of these, two illustrate ways that third parties seek to manipulate physician practices to maximize profits; one notes how any kind of clinical trial—whether government or industry sponsored—may affect patient care decisions (Cruz); while two argue that worries over industry sponsorship of research are disproportionate (Bierut and Sofair), and two address widespread concerns about industry sponsorship of educational activities, with one illustrating how bias might be reduced (Seitz & Diao), and another illustrating the potential harms of prohibiting educational sponsorship (Peppin).
To be clear, all of these narratives are responsive to our call for stories that “describe positive and negative experiences associated with a variety of financial relationships.” Yet they are not classic conflict of interest stories; rather, they represent the conflicting interests that concern physicians today—conflicts that are often intrinsic to our current healthcare and research systems rather than special relationships courted by physicians.
While making no pretense of representativeness or comprehensiveness, these stories provide fertile ground for reflection, as seen in our...