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Pharmaceutical company-professor relationship at Harvard Medical School a question of ethics, professionalism

Harvard Medical School students recently reported concerns about relationships between professors and pharmaceutical companies.
Harvard Medical School students recently reported concerns about relationships between professors and pharmaceutical companies.

In a Mar. 3 New York Times article, Harvard Medical School faced criticism for having professors who were paid consultants for pharmaceutical companies.

Medical students reported concerns that professors would promote certain drugs over others in lecture, even when the drug might not be the best treatment for a certain condition.

Dean of Health Sciences at Queen’s David Walker said he doesn’t think pharmaceutical research presents problems of the same magnitude to Canadian schools as in the U.S.

“I don’t think it’s quite the issue in Canada as it is in the States,” he said.

He said there are most likely professors at Queen’s who are consultants for pharmaceutical companies. The University requires that professors declare their relationship with any pharmaceutical company, Walker said, adding that this doesn’t mean they’re required to divulge whether they’re receiving any compensation for this research.

“We do in this faculty a large amount of research,” he said. “Many faculty members who work in the hospitals enroll patients in clinical trials.

“I think those engaged in clinical research will almost invariably have a relationship with a drug company,” he said. “We want to make sure those relationships are transparent. You can’t dislocate yourself from drug companies.”

Walker said he doesn’t know how much professors would be paid for being a consultant to a drug company.

“I haven’t a clue [how much someone would be paid],” he said. “Just because people are doing research with drug companies doesn’t mean they’re being paid.”

Walker said he hopes professors would maintain the ethical standard which is expected for them at Queen’s.

“I think we all adhere to the ethical standards of the profession and that would violate those standards,” he said. “There are standard limits in terms of conflicts of commitment and conflicts of interest.”

Walker said Queen’s School of Medicine is investigating their instructors’ relationships with drug companies to determine whether there are conflicts of interests.

He said the benchmark being used is the conflict-of-interest policy drafted last year by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Adrienne Li, Meds ’11, said she wasn’t sure if any of her professors were consultants for pharmaceutical companies.

“I am not aware of any profs being paid consultants but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were,” she said in an e-mail to the Journal.

Li said she hasn’t had a professor recommend a specific medication without providing an explanation. Her professors also promote the use of generic drug names.

“Our professors and tutors generally encourage us to use generic drug names and educate our patients that they are essentially the same drug,” she said. “Generic drugs are much cheaper, and given how expensive some drugs can be, it’s important that our patients know that they can purchase the same drug for a fraction of the price.” 

Paul Uy, Meds ’11, said he read the article in the New York Times but hadn’t heard of conflict of interests like this occurring anywhere else.

“As far as I can tell, no professor has been involved in a conflict of interest,” he told the Journal via e-mail. “I can’t help but suspect that medical schools throughout the world all have to consider how they treat the generosity, sponsorship and possible undue influence of pharmaceutical companies.

“The Harvard medical students should be commended for looking at their current circumstance as learners and current advocates, and I hope all medical students are challenged to do the same.”

Uy said he thinks it’s important to consider the relationship between business and medicine.

“I guess that I wish there was a way for us to have the time to examine the relationship between pharmaceuticals and our school further, since the relationship between business and medicine is a consideration we’ll have to keep it in mind for the rest of our careers.

“Right now, I think that developing an awareness and active insight into the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and medicine is crucial, but a difficult awareness to develop when you’re trying to learn so many things all at once.”

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