Big Pharma’s Charity: It’s Better to Give and Receive

June 29th, 2006 by

Let’s say someone offers to pay you to do some research about their product. You set up a non-profit research entity and deposit their hefty check. What would your goal be: to prove the product ineffective? to discourage people from using it? Not likely. But how would you determine the extent to which the source of your funds contaminates the research? Would it help clarify matters if the donor gave you some stock in the company and paid you to educate other doctors about their product?
If you like murky waters, you’ll love big pharma’s contributions to the charitable trusts set up by docs around the country. In a fascinating article by New York Times reporter Reed Abelson (registration required), we read that charities established by doctors are the recipients of money to fund research: not research in the abstract, but research pertaining to the use of products manufactured by the donors themselves. This arrangement, while not inherently illegal, is loaded with potential conflicts of interest. Call it business as usual in the world of medicine.
When Charity and Profits Intersect
Abelson writes about Dr. Maria Rosa Costanzo, who made a presentation to cardiologists at a conference in March. She touted a $14,000 blood filtering device, which her research demonstrated was more effective (albeit more expensive) than intravenous diuretic drugs at removing excess fluid from patients with heart failure.
Although outside researchers raised questions about the study’s conclusions, the doctor was convinced. “We believe these results challenge current medical practice and recommendations.” She predicted many patients might benefit. Dr. Costanzo did disclose to the audience that she was a paid consultant with stock in the device’s maker, a Minnesota company called CHF Solutions. But she omitted another potentially important detail: CHF Solutions was also one of the largest donors to the nonprofit research foundation that had overseen the study. The company contributed about $180,000 in 2004.
In addition, Dr. Costanzo did not bother informing her listeners that the nonprofit entity conducting the research, the Midwest Heart Foundation, was in turn an arm of the for-profit medical group outside of Chicago where Dr. Costanzo and more than 50 of her fellow doctors treat heart patients — in many cases using products and drugs made by CHF Solutions and other big donors to their charity. Although the CHF Solutions filter has not yet won wide acceptance across the country, for physicians at Dr. Costanzo’s medical group, it is the device of choice.
If you check out the foundation’s website, you’ll see that they promote their ability to “offer our patients access to the most progressive cardiovascular treatments and preventative strategies, giving them the same opportunities as patients at university hospitals.” In other words, patients can access the latest technologies, even before they have been formally approved by the FDA. As good as this sounds, I would be surprised if the doctors disclose their financial interests to their patients. These patients might have second thoughts if they knew that the research is potentially biased from the outset.
Contaminated Thinking?
The more the Insider probes the decision-making process in medicine, the more questions we have. Why do doctors prescribe some drugs more than others? Why has oxycontin proved so popular among doctors treating workplace injuries? Why do drug companies hire ex-cheerleaders (with no background in science) to sell drugs to doctors? Do doctors think about the potential conflict between their own financial interests and the products they recommend to their patients? The ultimate question, of course, is whether patients are getting the best possible treatment, with the most effective medications, or whether the interests of the patients are subordinated to the financial interests of the doctors.
There are no easy answers. We like to think of charity and good medicine as matters of the heart. But in the world of American medical care, when you scan the doctor’s chest, you just might see something that looks less like a heart and more like a wallet.

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