I spent some of last week at Davidson College in North Carolina, in the company of Dr. Thomas P. Stossel, driving force behind ACRE (Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators). Both Dr. Stossel and ACRE have come in for considerable criticism on this blog, so I thought a brief report was appropriate. I am first happy to be able to say that Danny Carlat, over at his psychiatry blog, was correct--I found Dr. Stossel to be personally very congenial and affable regardless what one thinks of his opinions on medicine-Pharma issues. I discovered that he and I have equally compelling reasons for psychopathology, having each of us been raised in our tender years as Chicago Cubs fans.
He and I each spoke at the Speas Colloquium, an annual medical ethics program at Davidson (where our host was Lance Stell, philosopher and another ACRE stalwart). I spoke in defense of the meaningfulness and relevance of the notion of conflict of interest. Dr. Stossel gave an overview of the ACRE position that defends financial ties between medicine and Pharma as the engine that drives innovation, and that sees all recent attempts to limit those ties as both unnecessary and harmful. My limited attempt to hold out an olive branch was to note that ACRE contains a lot of expertise on how medicine can collaborate with Pharma around biotech and pharmaceutical research, so that they could be leading the way to develop an ethically sounder relationship between medicine and the pharmaceutical industry--if only they would admit, for starters, that we currently have a problem. Dr. Stossel obviously was having none of that. He continues the trend in his previously published work of minimizing all bad stuff that happens at the med/Pharma interface--the stuff I have to find time weekly or even more often to post here--as disconnected, rare anecdotes, not as any sort of recurring or worrisome pattern.
In most respects I thought that the talk he gave at Davidson was more or less what we would expect, based on his previous publications. The exception was one slide that he presented on professionalism. The primary source he cited was the recent book by David Wootton, Bad Medicine. The point seemed to be that when folks like me who are concerned about undue influence of commercial interests on medical practice cite "professionalism" as our concern, this ought to be questioned if not dismissed--that much more harm than good has been done over the centuries by invoking "professionalism" in medicine, that "professionalism" has often stood in the way of accepting new scientific evidence, and that it is simply wrong to characterize medicine as something over and above a business. (In short, the sorts of arguments that result when one ignores the more recent, ethical sense of 'professionalism' and invokes only the descriptive, sociological sense of the term.)
My comment here would be that it is perhaps indicative of the strength of the arguments raised by the ACRE folks, to see how wide a swath of ethical countryside they have to lay waste to, in order to defend their chosen position. They want to defend docs taking bundles of cash from Pharma; we invoke conflict of interest as an ethical concern with that approach; so they decide they have to throw out conflict of interest. (Not limit or refine the scope of conflict of interest, mind you, but completely dispense with it.) So now we continue to worry about their heels with some quaint ideas of medical professionalism; and they now find it necessary to dispense completely and totally with medical professionalism. It is not merely a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It appears to be the baby, the rest of the family, the dog, and the hearth, and still they are not done.