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Medical School Ethics Is Not An Oxymoron

From the Daily:

BY Bill Gleason PUBLISHED: 01/22/2009

“No one ever told task force members — at least not me — about the history of [Professor Leo] Furcht and [Medical School Dean Dr. Deborah] Powell. Maybe everyone else knew. But I was the outsider on this task force — the journalism guy from across the street. I am disappointed and feel misled.?

-Journalism Professor Gary Schwitzer commenting on his HealthNews Blog on UThink.

I can understand how Professor Schwitzer would be disappointed with Powell and Furcht. A lot of people share that disappointment.

It is difficult for me to criticize the Medical School because of the many good people who work here: Warren Warrick, Karen Ash, Abhi Humar, David Hunter, Keith Skubitz, Doug Yee, and Dave Thomas. I could easily list a page more of wonderful colleagues. But criticism has become necessary because — in adminspeak — mistakes were made.

According to University investigative reports obtained by the Star Tribune: “A professor who is leading the University of Minnesota Medical School’s effort to write tougher ethics rules was himself disciplined in 2004 for secretly steering a $501,000 research grant to his own company.?

Powell appointed a conflict of interest policy violator, Laboratory Medicine & Pathology department chair Leo Furcht, to serve as co-chair of a panel tasked to recommend a new conflict of interest policy for the Medical School. Dr. Powell’s husband is a medical school faculty member in Dr. Furcht’s department.

Dr. Leo Furcht, the chairman of lab medicine and pathology, was reprimanded for a “serious violation? of university conflict-of-interest policies in connection with a grant from Baxter Healthcare for stem cell research at the Medical School, according to the investigation, which the newspaper received through the state’s public records law.

Responses to the Star-Tribune pre-Christmas news report about this situation are telling. Dr. Powell justified her appointment of Furcht without disclosing his violations by saying: “I did not think it was relevant.? The Star Tribune further reported that “Frank Cerra, the university’s senior vice president for health sciences, said Friday he was familiar with the case but couldn’t recall details. He said Furcht’s experience could help inform the conflict-of-interest committee's work.?

This doesn’t pass the smell test. Furcht is accused of having in years past diverted about a half million dollars in research funds. He has made millions of dollars in what seem conflicted business dealings. Someone’s moral compass is demagnetized.

As Margaret Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University, writes on her blog: “[An editorial] in the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes that the most charitable description of what’s been going on at the clubby University of Minnesota medical school would be ‘bizarre.’?

Fortunately, there are people on campus willing to speak up as Gary Schwitzer has. Carl Elliot of the University’s Center for Bioethics, not a member of the panel, has commented in the Star Tribune that Furcht’s task force involved in developing new rules on financial relationships with industry should itself be free of conflict of interest and that Furcht should be removed from the committee.

The AHC and the medical school administration are fond of talking about change. Doctors Cerra and Furcht have been administrators since before re-engineering days – during the brief reign of terror of AHC Provost William Brody and the ill-fated tenure wars at Minnesota. Dean Powell is nearing the end of a distinguished career. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cola for which she was compensated $130,651 in 2007, according to a proxy statement. She has said that one of the benefits of her work for Pepsi is the opportunity to learn how organizations plan and handle succession. Perhaps this experience could be put to use here at the University?

The larger issue of national importance is the wide spread problem of conflicts of interest in medical schools. As the former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, Marcia Angell, put it in the January 15 New York Review of Books:

“[A]pologists might argue that the pharmaceutical industry is merely trying to do its primary job — further the interests of its investors — and sometimes it goes a little too far. Physicians, medical schools, and professional organizations have no such excuse, since their only fiduciary responsibility is to patients. The mission of medical schools and teaching hospitals — and what justifies their tax-exempt status — is to educate the next generation of physicians, carry out scientifically important research, and care for the sickest members of society. It is not to enter into lucrative commercial alliances with the pharmaceutical industry.?

The conflict of interest issue has dragged on for more than a year and a half at the University. Let’s repair the credibility damage done by the Furcht appointment and other disclosure issues. Professors like Schwitzer shouldn’t be pulled up short by questionable practices in our university. Foot-dragging in this matter is not appropriate while we are trying to convince the citizens of our state to support their public medical school. Let’s get a policy to the Board of Regents as soon as possible for their approval.

Bill Gleason is a University Medical School faculty member and a 1973 University graduate. Please send comments to letters@mndaily.com.

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