BOSTON--A group of first-year Harvard Medical School students are questioning the ethics behind the distribution of free textbooks by a pharmaceutical company.
Urging their classmates to return the two books distributed by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals at the beginning of the year, the students said that such free gifts encourage unhealthy relationships between medical practitioners and drug companies.
They also said such practices lead to higher drug prices for patients.
First-year medical student and former editorial chair of The Crimson Joshua M. Sharfstein '91 outlined the group's opposition to the free books in the school's October 6th newsletter.
Sharfstein and fellow first-years Esther J. Dechant, Andrew J. Greenspan, Yngvild K. Olsen and Michael A. Steinman set up a book drop last Thursday to encourage other first-year recipients to return their books.
A letter addressed to Timothy Rothwell, president of Sandoz, was posted above the book drop to explain the student group's position.
"We recognize that while the books are gifts, they are not free," the letter states.
"They--and similar gifts and incentives offered to other medical students and physicians--are paid for by consumers in the form of higher drug prices. Accepting gifts from companies violates an ethical obligation to our future patients."
Bill O'Donnell, the associate director of communications at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, said the gifts to Harvard medical students are "modest contributions to medical education."
"The distribution is done with the consent and knowledge of the institution. Our understanding is that they are required textbooks," O'Donnell said.
But Associate Dean of Student Affairs Edward M. Hundert said the school does not in fact require the textbooks in question.
The two books were The Bantam MedicalDictionary and Cranial Nerves: Anatomy andClinical Comments.
As of noon yesterday, 13 names were listed on apetition stapled below the letter. Though the boxonly contained eight books at noon yesterday,Sharfstein said that some books had been stolenfrom the box.
Sharfstein said that tomorrow will be the lastopportunity for students to return their books.
First-year student William P. Warren said hewould not call the book distribution wasunethical, likening it to other forms ofadvertisement.
"I think he [Sharfstein] does have a point, butI'm not sure how different it is fromadvertising," Warren said. "There are someproblems with [free distribution], but it's notnecessarily immoral, and the companies are goingto find ways to advertise by either targetingdoctors or consumers."
In addition to the book drop and petition, thestudents also posted a comment board to elicitresponses from students to the question, "What doyou think? Should medical students accept gifts?"
Some of the students said it was not immoral toaccept gifts from companies, but others cited theexhorbitant fees of medical school as a reason foraccepting the free gifts.
Sharfstein said this dilemma for the medicalschool students is representative of the difficultdecisions "they'll have to make...during theirentire medical careers.