The trail of tainted funding: Conflicts of interest in healthcare, academics, public relations and journalism

Healthcare is big business, and conflicts of interest are pervasive.

Conflicts of interest in healthcare

Who stands to gain what is always an important question to ask–whether you’re a journalist or a healthcare consumer. But as we’ve found, many financial relationships are obscured or not ever reported, so it can be very hard to answer that question.

We’ve written a number of stories looking at conflicts of interest in the field of medicine, public relations and especially journalism. What we’ve found is that there are conflicts of interest throughout the process–from the early stages of research into a possible new intervention to the big splashy front-page news coverage once that intervention is made available to the public.

Why should you care?

Just for starters: News consumers can’t be sure what they’re getting if news and PR messages don’t disclose conflicts of interest on the part of people who are quoted or cited.

Worse, if the news organization accepts funding from the entity that they’re reporting on, how can a consumer ever really know that the news organization will bite the hand that feeds it? It sends the wrong message and sets a terrible example for the general public and for younger journalists that such deals are innocuous and acceptable.

We believe that news stories about health care interventions should include independent experts and should always explore and disclose conflicts of interest in the people who are quoted. We even provide journalists (and the FDA and others) a list of industry-independent experts who can provide commentary with no strings attached. Also, because patient advocacy groups aren’t always what they seem, we’ve added a quick guide to nonprofit sleuthing.

Let’s take a look at some of our most important posts:

Conflicts of interest in healthcare

Conflicts of interest in medicine: pervasive, worrisome, and detrimental to healthcare
What a tangled web we weave: This is a broad look at many various conflicts of interest in medicine, underscoring how difficult it has become for healthcare providers and journalists to keep up with an increasingly entangled web of conflicts of interest.

Criticism of NEJM’s defense of industry-physician relations
The first of a four-part series responding to the New England Journal of Medicine’s call to “reinterpret” industry–physician relations. Many were troubled to see one of the most respected and influential journals in medicine downplay the impact of industry money in health care. They wondered how the NEJM could overlook the enormous amount of unethical and illegal behavior that industry conflicts have contributed to. Our response exposes the poor logic that underlies the NEJM series, and points to the vast body of literature (largely overlooked by NEJM) that attests to the negative impact of physician conflicts of interest on medicine and medical journals. (Click for parts two, three, and four our coverage.)

Who funded the research? It’s always an important question
A suspicious tweet about medical imaging leads journalist Trudy Lieberman to ask: Who funded that? “Self-serving studies still have currency in the regulatory arena especially when they’re published in respectable journals and their funders are not transparent. It’s important for journalists and the public to look skeptically when they come across any study on Twitter or elsewhere.”

Non-profit Alliance for Patient Access uses journalists and politicians to push Big Pharma’s agenda
The AfPA claims it’s trying to ensure patients have access to FDA-approved therapies. However, its track record shows it pushes platforms that help drug companies’ bottom lines. We frequently write about how patient advocacy groups are co-opted by drug industry funding, but the AfPA is something different, observers say: a front group established solely to do the bidding of industry. To advance its agenda, the AfPA often uses politicians and the news media, and rarely are its deep pharmaceutical connections called out. For example, their use of op-eds.

Conflicts of interest in public relations news releases

Conflict of interest/funding disclosure missing from half of news releases we’ve reviewed — a case study on why that’s important
It’s common for news releases to not disclose conflicts of interest in health care research–about half of the news releases we’ve reviewed so far lack this information. In this post, we investigate one such case where a University of Houston news release never disclosed that the researchers held patents on the technology. We wanted to know: Why not?

Researcher on flawed chocolate milk/concussions study failed to disclose big dairy donations
Why did the University of Maryland issue a news release claiming that a certain brand of chocolate milk could help with recovery from concussions … and then clam up when we asked to see the data? Our pursuit of that question led the university to launch an institutional investigation that uncovered flawed research, undisclosed donations from a dairy company totaling some $200,000, and a failure to understand the potential for conflict when partnering with a private company.

Conflicts of interest in health care journalism

In June 2017, published a three-part series on conflicts of interest in health care journalism.

Part 1 looks at the trail of tainted funding and the growing number of questionable alliances between news organizations and health care industry sponsors.

Part 2 zeroes in on how the Association of Health Care Journalists routinely solicits significant funds from academic medical centers in order to support its annual conferences, which poses a conflict of interest.

Part 3 showcases a video interview with publisher Gary Schwitzer, who shares his perspective of growing concerns over a 44-year career in health care journalism.

It’s an issue we’ve looked at many times. Other coverage includes:

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