Thursday, March 11, 2010

Conflict of Interest at the University of Minnesota

The Disgraceful Foot Dragging Continues

From the Associated Press:

By Chris Williams

MINNEAPOLIS - A sweeping conflict-of-interest policy that would apply to more than 18,000 University of Minnesota faculty and staff will get an important test before regents on Friday after more than two years of development.

The policy update comes after a handful of ethics cases embarrassed the university, including a university psychiatrist who published research on a drug made by a company he consulted for and a spinal surgeon who may have failed to disclose conflicts raised by his work for a medical device maker.

The university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, touted the revised policy for its flexibility and scope. It will cover nearly all university employees, not just those who work in health care or medical research.

It will also allow for stricter rules on some employees than others. For example, it could require some faculty to disclose every dollar of outside income — instead of just income above $10,000 — while giving others more leeway.

Rotenberg said the university is revising the policy to make sure it is "transparent, responsible and accountable" in its research and teaching.

Still, many details of the Minnesota plan remain to be worked out even after regents vote on the framework. The not-quite-finished policy doesn't set penalties for violations, nor does it specify which faculty must file the most detailed disclosures.

The new Minnesota policy grew out of concerns in the medical school in 2008 that industry money might unduly influence patient care, scientific research and medical education. As the new policy has developed, the university has suffered some conflict-of-interest headaches.

A doctor working on the new ethics guidelines had himself been disciplined for steering a $500,000 grant to a company in which he had an interest. In another case, a university psychiatrist and consultant for drug maker AstraZeneca published research about a drug that was more positive than the company's own research.

And spinal surgeon David Polly was criticized last year by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, for requesting funding for research on a Medtronic product without disclosing he had been paid more than $1 million in consulting fees by the company.

Rotenberg said the university's investigation into whether Polly violated the university's current conflict-of-interest policies is ongoing.

Bill Gleason, a professor in the university's department of medicinal chemistry*** and a frequent blogger on the issue, isn't impressed by the proposed policy.

"This is just a tiny step forward and we should have done more by now," he said.

He said the university should have put a new conflict-of-interest policy in place at the medical school, where the issue is most serious, long before trying to tackle the complexities of applying it systemwide.

"There's no excuse for the medical school to take this long to come up with a decent conflict-of-interest policy. None. Zero," he said.

Rotenberg said President Robert Bruininks decided the policy should cover all employees because problems can pop up anywhere. In a presentation to regents earlier, Rotenberg alluded to a 2008 case in which another university didn't know one of its admissions officers had a consulting business helping students get into college. He didn't name the university.

***To clarify

I am a faculty member in the Medical School Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology and a proud U of M alum (PhD, Chemistry, 1973). Bill Gleason

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