- Conflicts—and Consensus—about Conflicts of Interest in Medicine
This fascinating collection of essays about individual experiences of conflict of interest leaves little doubt that physicians remain divided about the importance, impact and meaning of conflicts of interest in their work. These essays offer differing views about what conflicts of interest look and feel like “on the ground” and about whether specific conflicts of interest are bad, just a fact of life, or maybe even good.
Conflict, Conflict Everywhere
These essays situate conflict of interest in a variety of contexts: the treatment recommendations a physician makes for an individual patient; the relationship between teaching physician and medical student or practicing physician and health care organization; the interaction between academic researchers and industry collaborators or professional bodies and industry supporters. In this, the narratives taken together reflect the scope of concern about conflict of interest in medicine familiar in the literature. In his classic 1993 essay, Dennis Thompson noted that concerns about conflict of interest encompass issues of physician self–referral, risk sharing between physicians and health care institutions, gifts from industry, hospital purchasing practices, as well as sponsored research and research with patients (Thompson 1993). To that list have subsequently been added relationships with industry in medical education at all levels, physicians’ service as consultants to industry or members of industry speakers bureau, and development of clinical practice guidelines (Lo & Fields 2009).
That almost none of these essays draw attention to some widely publicized situations of conflict of interest—for example, gifts to physicians or the provision of drug samples—should, we think, be seen more as an artifact of the authors’ varied individual experiences than as a failure by the authors to engage key concerns in the ongoing professional and public debate. It could also be that the authors, asked to submit personal stories, assumed that yet another essay about the ‘traditional’ issues in the conflicts of interest literature would be seen as redundant, routine or even boring. Or, there is the tantalizing possibility that the absence of some of the more familiar conflicts from these narratives is the early fruit of efforts to address these traditional issues through policies governing interactions between physicians and industry promulgated by academic medical centers and health systems, medical specialty societies, and industry.
One significant area of concern that has emerged in recent years is conflict of interest in the development of clinical practice guidelines. E.g., Choudry et al. 2002; Sniderrman & Furberg 2009; Guyatt et al. 2010. Although none of the essays in this [End Page 101] collection address it head on, Perlmutter touches on several key issues. His depiction of how an FDA committee process limited the input he was able to provide as an expert, undermined his potential to contribute to the professional dialogue, and raised concerns about the objectivity of the drug approval process echoes concerns about objectivity, the role of expert opinion, and the presence on guideline development panels of individuals with financial interests in the recommendations to be developed that have been explored at some length in the literature, most recently by the Institute of Medicine in reports on evidentiary standards (Eden et al 2011) and principles for guideline development (Graham et al. 2011).
Conflict of Interest or Dual Agency?
Several essays set out physicians’ experience in navigating situations of diverging expectations. Bierut, for example, reflects on the disjunction between the goals and products of academic researchers and commercial sponsors. She saw herself advancing basic knowledge and was forced to grapple with the reality of sponsors’ goals to advance commercial ends as well. Nagldinne and Mikulec each recall struggles to reconcile their obligation to exercise professional judgment on behalf of patients with the demands of health care organizations focussed also on the bottom line. Cruz–Flores attests to the challenge of making recommendations for care when one is both a practicing clinician and a clinical investigator engaged in research that might offer benefit to a patient for whom there are limited options.
Thompson defined conflicts of interest as “a set of conditions in which professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as a patient’s welfare or the validity of...