Harvard Medical School To Review Conflict of Interest Policies

Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier announced Thursday that the school will embark on a review of its conflict of interest policy in conjunction with Harvard’s ongoing efforts to develop University-wide recommendations and guidelines.

The 19-member committee—which, for the first time, includes students—is charged with reviewing the existing policy and revamping the current process for disclosing financial interests and industry ties. The last review took place in 2004.

“It’s time for it,” Gretchen A. Brodnicki, the school’s dean for faculty and research integrity, said yesterday. “This is a living document of a policy that was always intended to be reviewed periodically.”

Brodnicki added that the school has been reviewing its conflict of interest policy every few years since the policy’s inception in 1990.

The formation of the school-wide committee, which will function as a subcommittee of the University-wide review, comes as conflict of interest issues have received national scrutiny. (The Harvard-wide review is being led by David Korn ’54, a former dean of Stanford Medical School who is occupying the newly-created position of vice provost for research.)

Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, reported last June that psychiatrist Joseph Biederman of Harvard-affiliated Mass. General Hospital received $1.6 million in consulting and speaking fees from the makers of drugs that he used to treat children for bipolar disorders.

Grassley later accused psychiatrists at Stanford and Emory of failing to disclose industry ties, such as $6 million worth of stock in a drug company and payments totaling $500,000 from pharmaceutical companies. Grassley has also sponsored legislation that would mandate the disclosure of financial ties between physicians and industry.

At the Medical School, students rallied in October to codify disclosure policies in the classroom and push for more comprehensive conflict of interest policies across the school and its affiliated hospitals. The teaching hospitals are independent and operate under their own charters, and each has its own conflict of interest policies.

Mark L. Zeidel, a Medical School professor on the committee, said he believes that standardizing conflict of interest policies across the hospitals would be a step in the right direction.

“My hope is we come up with a single code of conduct for the school and its hospitals,” said Zeidel, who works at Harvard-affliated Beth Israel.

Brodnicki declined to comment further on specific issues the committee would take on, but added that the group would look to streamline the process for reporting industry ties.

Medical School professor Peter Sorger, who is also a member of the committee, said that faculty members could conceivably be filling out disclosure forms several times a month—every time they submit grant proposals in addition to annual updates.

“I don’t think public disclosure is enough, but I do think it’s a necessary step,” Sorger said, noting that the need for more than just disclosure is recognized in the current policy.

He added that the committee aims to strengthen existing policies and consider other steps to ensure fair industry-related practices.

Though the Medical School’s panel has yet to meet, the committee will almost certainly update existing policies to comply with a Massachusetts law signed in August that requires pharmaceutical and medical device-making firms to publicly disclose gifts worth more than $50.

“Our policy currently doesn’t cover or restrict gifts,” Brodnicki said. “That’s something that will certainly be a topic for this group’s discussion.”

Brodnicki said that the Medical School doesn’t have “any timeline” for finishing the review.

“It doesn’t make sense to say we’re going to hurry out a recommendation in X number of months,” she said, “it’s more important that we get this right.”

Past reviews have usually taken between several months and a year to complete.

The final policy developed by the Medical School committee will be reviewed by the school’s Faculty Council and will then be submitted to the University-wide team for approval.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at