Examining Drug Industry Influence on Medical Education

March 4, 2009

We have written a fair bit here in the past about direct-to-consumer drug advertising and drug industry payments to physicians, but a recent New York Times article points to another area in which drug industry dollars may have an unexpected influence – medical education.

The article offers this example:

In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.

Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.

Zerden wasn’t the only concerned Harvard medical student – more than 200 of them, along with some faculty, are apparently riled up and working to expose these types of connections and payments. From other students:

“Harvard needs to live up to its name,” said Kirsten Austad, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student who is one of the movement’s leaders. “We are really being indoctrinated into a field of medicine that is becoming more and more commercialized.”

David Tian, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student, said: “Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it’s something that’s purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education when that information is also presented for marketing purposes.”

Students such as these are also alarmed that Harvard Medical School received an “F” grade on the American Medical Students Association’s 2008 PharmaFree Scorecard, a rating of conflict of interest policies at academic medical centers in the United States.

The students’ efforts have apparently generated results, such that there is now “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.” A committee has also been established to re-examine the institution’s conflict-of-interest policies, and includes student members.

Relatedly, the Times also reports that last fall a Pfizer employee turned up on Harvard’s campus to photograph students who were protesting pharmaceutical industry influence on campus.

The AMSA scorecard mentioned in the article is freely accessible online, allowing users to browse and compare institutions and view policy information on gifts and samples, disclosure, site access, curriculum, and other factors.

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