July 5th, 2011
Harvard Docs Disciplined For Conflicts Of Interest
Three years after they were fingered in a US Senate probe into the interplay between academics who receive grant money from both pharma and the National Institutes of Health, three prominent psychiatrists from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital have been sanctioned for violating conflict of interest rules and failing to report the extent of their payments.
In a mea culpa addressed to their colleagues, Joseph Biederman, Thomas Spencer and Timothy Wilens wrote that “we want to offer our sincere apologies to HMS and MGH communities…We always believed we were complying in good faith with the institutional polices and our mistakes were honest ones. We now recognize that we should have devoted more time and attention to the detailed requirements of these policies and to their underlying objectives.”
And what is their punishment? They must refrain from “all industry-sponsored outside activities” for one year; for two years after the ban ends, they must obtain permission from the med school and the hospital before engaging in any of these activities and they must report back afterward; they must undergo certain training and they face delays before being considered for promotion or advancement (you can read their letter here).
The hospital had this to say: “A committee at Massachusetts General Hospital that has been looking into conflict-of-interest questions involving three MGH child psychiatrists has completed its review. Appropriate remedial actions have been taken by the hospital to address specific issues (read the statement). And a Harvard Med School spokesman sent us this: “We confirm that the review of their compliance with the Harvard Medical School Policy on Conflicts of Interest and Commitment has concluded, and appropriate actions have been taken.” He added that the conflicts policy was revised last year.
The sanctions result from a long-standing controversy over the explosive use of antipsychotics in children. Biederman, in particular (see photo), had been one of the most influential researchers in child psychiatry. Although his studies were small and often financed by drugmakers, his work helped fuel a 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder.
For more than a decade, Biederman and his colleagues aggressively promoted the diagnosis and use of antipsychotics to treat childhood bipolar disorder, a problem that once was largely believed to be confined to adults. But the docs maintained this was underdiagnosed in kids and the meds could be used for treatment, even though they had not been approved for most pediatric use at the time. Meanwhile, the relationships with drugmakers were never properly disclosed (back story).