Harvard Doctors Accept Fewer Speaking Engagements As Restrictions Tighten

The total amount of money pharmaceutical companies paid Massachusetts doctors promoting their products decreased in recent years—indicating that beefed-up conflict of interest policies are shutting down the profitable circuit of speaking engagements for Harvard doctors and other medical professionals.

Total payments by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in Massachusetts decreased from $1.2 million in 2009 to $884,850 in 2010. Eli Lilly, another drug company, saw a decrease in its fees paid from $1.6 million in 2009 to $866,910 in 2010.

Many Harvard-affiliated doctors and researchers have cut ties with company speaking engagement bureaus, according to the Boston Globe.

Harvard medical professionals collected a significant percentage of the speaking fees doled out by pharmaceutical companies in 2009 and the first half of 2010. But recent data shows that many Harvard affiliates ceased making promotional speeches in the second half of 2010 and first quarter of 2011 as tighter University and Medical School regulations have taken effect.

“It’s not surprising that, as institutions such as Harvard say that these doctors and researchers shouldn’t be participating in these kind of speaking engagements, that doctors obey them,” said Medical School Associate Professor Eric G. Campbell, who studies the interaction of medical professionals and the health care industry.

Campbell attributed this decline in part to a cultural shift among doctors.

“For a long time in medicine, not just at Harvard, but everywhere, there was a culture that said doctors were entitled to industry perks, but that culture is breaking down,” Campbell said. “Doctors no longer assume it is their right and duty to accept these perks from industry.”

The change has been reflected in institutional policy. Over the past decade, Harvard Medical School has revised its conflict of interest policy several times, but when a recent scandal made nation-wide news, the school implemented its strictest regulations yet.

In June 2008, the Medical School was embroiled in debate after U.S. Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) reported that psychiatrist Joseph Biederman of Harvard-affiliated Mass. General Hospital had received $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees from the makers of drugs he had used to treat children for bipolar disorder.

This allegation spurred the Medical School to launch an 18-month internal review process. New restrictions stemming from the investigation took effect last January.

The rules prohibit faculty from accepting personal gifts and giving industry-sponsored talks at events where the material is prepared in advance by the company. Additionally, the limit on annual faculty compensation from outside companies has been slashed in half, to $10,000.

Campbell said that Harvard has led medical schools in revising its conflict of interest policy.

“Harvard University... [has] been recognized as a national leader in addressing these issues for many years,” Campbell said. “Not every institution forbids [speaking engagements].”

Gretchen A. Brodnicki, the Medical School dean for faculty and research integrity, could not be reached for comment.

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at tmerrigan@college.harvard.edu.

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