Blog | Thursday, December 18, 2014

Conflict of interest and managing scandal

I have had the privilege of chairing the Industry Relations Conflict of Interest Committee at the Indiana University School of Medicine, the medical school where I work, over the past year. I have learned a lot about interactions of academic physicians with industry, and have certainly heard differing opinions on the topic. Our policies were recently approved (unanimously, I might add!) by all of the pertinent committees, and already, many faculty have had comments and questions about specifics of the policy.

One common theme that we have also heard is that "regulatory agencies and administrative bodies" have hurt the field of medicine. I certainly understand the additional burdens of what it takes to practice medicine, and how those burdens can actually damage the patient-physician relationship. However, when one looks at why conflict of interest policies are put in place, one needn't look very far to see why it is necessary.

Here is a prime example. The Journal of Patient Safety had to deal with this recent example with its own editor. Dr. Charles Denham, the [now] former editor of the journal, failed to disclose his own financial conflicts of interest with organizations which paid him. This impacted recommendations he made with respect to clinical guidelines that center around optimizing patient safety.

What is interesting to me is that sometimes, how one handles a scandal can be as important as the scandal itself. Covering it up, hiding it, or trying to sweep it under the rug are all examples of ways that don't work. It is amazing that it is this same sense of "doing the right thing" that parents try to teach their children. What impressed me in this example is how the journal chose to address this. The journal has opted to tighten its own policies and processes around conflict of interest, for authors, editors and others who make decisions about articles within the journal. They even published an article describing what they plan to do.

For anyone wondering how to handle a scandal, THIS is how to handle a scandal. Admit the wrongdoing, describe what steps need to be taken for the better, and, simply, apologize. As written in this NPR piece, "airing the dirty laundry," while painful, is a necessary step.

I applaud Dr. Albert Wu, Dr. David Bates and the journal editors for demonstrating the right way to manage this situation. I think this is a great learning experience for the patient safety movement, for editors, and for all physicians who interact with industry. Conflicts of interest are complex, but it all comes back to the fact that there is a public trust that must be put front and center. If we violate that trust, then we have done a disservice to the profession, to ourselves, and, most importantly, to our patients.

Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. This post originally appeared at Mired in MedEd, where he blogs about medical education.