A fascinating article in the New York Times last week told the story of Matt Zerden, a student at Harvard Medical School who was troubled when he heard his pharmacology professor repeatedly promote the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.
Mr. Zerden later discovered that the professor, a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, was also a paid consultant to ten different drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments. “I felt really violated,” Zerden says. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.”
Now more than 200 Harvard Medical School students and sympathetic faculty are trying to expose and curtail pharmaceutical industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories, as well as in Harvard’s seventeen affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes. They say they are concerned that the same money that helped build the school’s world-class status may in fact be hurting its reputation and affecting its teaching.
The American Medical Student Association, a national group that rates how well medical schools monitor and control drug industry money, recently graded Harvard an F for their lax approach. Harvard Medical School’s peers received much higher grades. The University of Pennsylvania received an A; Stanford, Columbia and New York University received Bs, while Yale was awarded a C.
The school’s dean, Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier says he wants Harvard to catch up with the best practices at other leading medical schools. He recently announced a nineteen-member committee to re-examine his school’s conflict-of-interest policies.
Harvard students have already secured a requirement that all professors and lecturers disclose their industry ties in class—a blanket policy that has been adopted by no other leading medical school. Shockingly, one Harvard professor’s disclosure in class listed no less than forty-seven pharmaceutical company affiliations. About 1,600 of the school’s 8,900 professors and lecturers have reported to the dean that they or a family member had a financial interest in a business related to their teaching, research, or clinical care. The reports show 149 with financial ties to Pfizer and 130 with Merck.
The students say they worry that pharmaceutical industry scandals in recent years—including some criminal convictions, billions of dollars in fines, proof of bias in research and publishing, and false marketing claims—have cast a bad light on the medical profession. And they criticize Harvard as being less vigilant than other leading medical schools in monitoring potential financial conflicts by faculty members.
It’s difficult to be vigilant when Harvard creates three chairs with an $8 million endowment from sleep research companies; establishes faculty prizes like the $50,000 award named after Bristol-Myers Squibb; and accepts sponsorships like Pfizer’s $1 million annual subsidy for twenty new MDs in a two-year program to learn clinical investigation and pursue Harvard Master of Medical Science degrees, including classes taught by Pfizer scientists.
Merck built a corporate research center in 2004 across the street from Harvard’s own big new medical research and class building. And Merck underwrites other work on the Harvard campus, including an immunology lab.
But Dr. Marcia Angell, a faculty member and former editor in chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, is among the professors who argue that industry profit motives are at odds with the scientific aims of academic medicine and that much of the financing needs to be not only disclosed, but banned. Too many medical schools, she says, have struck a “Faustian bargain” with pharmaceutical companies.
“If a school like Harvard can’t behave itself,” Dr. Angell said, “who can?”