Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dave Durenberger on the University of Minnesota and Conflict of Interest

(From his January 14, 2010 commentary)

The medical ethics debate goes on as some individuals and institutions adopt a zero tolerance policy where personal advantage and professional advice are involved. And others insist they cannot be unduly influenced and can draw their own lines. Conflict of interest rules at Partners Healthcare in Boston (Harvard's two medical school hospitals) are tough on medical researchers. No speakers' fees from drug companies. Top scientists serving on medical technology company boards are limited to $5,000 per meeting. Few other medical schools are this strict. Said Tom Donaldson, who teaches business ethics at Wharton, "It strikes me as a breath of fresh air in a room that's getting progressively more stale."

Why do you suppose that's the case? Most likely, because university medical schools depend financially on attracting faculty members whose clinical research, more than their clinical or educational performance, attracts large numbers of research grants from public and from private sources. The University of Minnesota medical school is way over its head in debt despite having the highest public med school tuition in the nation. It thinks it must build bio-science buildings and recruit reputed medical researchers to bring in research money. It can't get to zero tolerance on appearance of conflict policies, because too many medical researchers depend on income from device or drug companies.

I believe financial support for my work in the Senate from those affected by my work never influenced my professional performance because I depended for support on so many with conflicting stakes in my outcomes. Yet, I became a poster boy for money as the appearance of conflict. My constituents, like Dr. Polly's patients, for example, can't discern whether I'm unduly influenced by - as in Dr. Polly's case - Medtronics money.

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