Harvard Medical School Gets 'B' on Conflict of Interest

School's rating jumps in annual scorecard from medical student group

After the American Medical Student Association flunked Harvard Medical School last year for failing to submit its conflict of interest policies for review, school officials hastened to turn in the paperwork this year—and got a B.

Earlier this week, AMSA released its third annual PharmFree Scorecard, which evaluates conflict of interest policies against industry influence at U.S. medical schools. This year's report evaluated policies at 149 schools according to 11 categories, including gifts, free samples, and other compensation—all possible areas of conflict with pharmaceutical companies.

Harvard Medical School also came under fire last year following allegations by U.S. Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, that psychiatrist Joseph Biederman of Harvard-affiliated Mass. General Hospital received $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees from the makers of drugs he had used to treat children for bipolar disorder.

This year, the Medical School sent in its existing policy—which is currently under review—as well as the conflict of interest policies at both Harvard-affiliate Children's Hospital Boston and at Partners Healthcare, a non-profit that owns Harvard-affiliates Mass. General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital.

The school embarked on a review of its conflict of interest policy this January in conjunction with Harvard's ongoing efforts to develop University-wide recommendations and guidelines. The 19-member committee—which, unlike past review committees, includes students—is charged with reviewing current policy and revamping regulations for disclosing financial interests and industry ties. The last such review took place in 2004.

Though this year's grade does not take into consideration the committee's ongoing efforts, Medical School spokesman David J. Cameron said that it "more accurately reflects" the school's commitment to holding its conflict of interest policies to high standards.

Conflict of interest issues drew particular national spotlight over the last year as Grassley charged several prominent researchers at Stanford and Emory, among other instituitons, with failing to disclose millions in compensation from drug companies.

The heightened attention prompted many medical schools nationwide to take a closer look at existing conflict of interest policies. Allan Coukell, director of the Pew Prescription Project, which co-created the Scorecard, credits both increased awareness and strong leadership at the schools with improving PharmFree scores this year. Of the 149 schools evaluated, 45 received A's or B's—which Coukell said reflected "good, serious policies"—16 up from last year.

"I do think that there are some medical school deans who realize the image of the profession has been tarnished," Coukell said. "There's a trend in the right direction, but there are still a lot of schools that have not addressed this issue."

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.