Eli Lilly's publication of a registry revealing all payments to doctors has opened up an overdue conversation. Is it ethical for a doctor to become a member of a drug company speaker's bureau? Or is it inherently deceptive for a doctor to pose as being an independent source of information while at the same time being under contract to speak for specific drugs?
In today's Boston Globe, Liz Kowalczyk does some investigative reporting based on information gleaned from the Lilly Registry. She found that two physicians at Boston Medical Center (BMC), neurologist Brian McGeeney, and endocrinologist Elliot Sternthal, were each paid thousands of dollars by Lilly during the first three months of 2009 to give education talks to other physicians. But according to Kowalczyk, for the past two years BMC has officially barred doctors from giving industry-sponsored talks unless the “lecture’s content, including slides and written materials, are determined by the clinician.’’
In fact, drug companies never allow doctors to determine their own content for promotional talks. As I described in a prior post, for example, Schering Plough's contract (view it here) for its asenapine speaker's bureau was explict in this regard: "You will used only the Schering approved materials for all presentations performed under this Agreement." While I have not seen Eli Lilly's speakers' contracts, on their website they describe their "healthcare professional education" in the following way: "The information presented in these programs is provided by Lilly alone, is closely regulated, and must conform to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements."
I think this is pretty clear. The content is produced by Lilly, and not by the doctor giving the talk.
Given all this, it sounds very much like Drs. McGeeney and Sternthal did, indeed, break their employer's rules regarding allowable industry activities. Unfortunately, rather than admitting this, they defended themselves in e-mails to Kowalczyk in the most unconvincing terms:
Sternthal said he determines “the structure of the presentation by my choice of disease state and clinical trial slides, order of presentation and emphasis of teaching points. This is in compliance with BU/BMC policy.’’
Whaaaat? We know what disease state Dr. Sternthal chooses for his talks--it is diabetes, for which Lilly markets a plethora of products, including Byetta. We also know what "clinical trial slides" he chooses--those slides showing research conducted by Lilly to show that its diabetes products are effective. The fact that he chooses the order of his Lilly-boosting slides hardly constitutes compliance with BMC's policy that the "lecture’s content, including slides and written materials, are determined by the clinician.’’ Sternthal might argue that he follows the letter of the rules because he, in fact, determines which among a menu of Lilly slides he uses in his presentation. But this is a hollow argument, because he didn't write the menu.
Here's an analogy. If my son comes home and says that for lunch he ate a cheeseburger and french fries, I might express my dispeasure and ask him to make healthier choices in the future. "But there was nothing else on the menu," he might respond. "Where did you go for lunch?" "McDonalds!" If you choose to go to McDonald's for lunch, your "choice" of food is severely limited. Similarly, if Dr. Sternthal chooses to go to Lilly for his medical information, every slide on the menu will be Lilly-friendly, meaning that his defense that he "chooses" what to teach is meaningless. His only choice was to become a promotional speaker, and he checked his academic independence at the door.
This behavior is inherently unethical, because it demeans the reputation of all doctors. How can patients have faith that doctors are making independent medical decisions when they hear about the Dr. Sternthal's and Dr. McGeeney's of the world defending themselves in such ways? Such doctors are gradually undermining the public's trust in all physicians.