Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Has the CME Pendulum Swung Too Far? Or Finally Far Enough?

Thanks to a long-time faithful reader for alerting me to this news story:

At issue is a new ruling from the continuing education (CME) poohbahs, the ACCME, on eliminating any industry scientists from accredited CME programs. The article quotes a number of my esteemed colleagues among the "Pharmascold" camp who are quite pleased with the ruling. It also quotes some standard medical society types who are going ballistic over it, as well as some level-headed folks like George Lundberg, former JAMA editor, who's fully attuned to the dangers of commercial conflicts.

My own view is quite conflicted and might fall under the heading of "hard cases make bad law." I think the problem is generalizing from specific cases to a general prohibition in all cases. I think if we had a set of case examples of industry scientists giving presentations at CME conferences, we could readily classify them into two piles, "ought to be allowed to speak" and "nothing of educational value lost if this dude is kicked out", for example:
  • Case 1: A conference panel is looking at the future of pharmacologic management of diabetes. They begin by accepting the premise, that large-scale trials have failed to show patient-oriented benefits from tight control of blood sugar in Type 2 diabetes, so more drugs to lower blood sugar are a bad idea. An industry scientist familiar with the basic biological mechanisms of diabetes lists several aspects of the basic biochemistry of the disease that seem amenable to control by the right sorts of molecules. He makes no comment about any drug now nearing production, but rather sketches out the general principles clinicians need to know to be able to judge the value of potential future drugs.
  • Case 2: A drug company is about to market a new drug for angina. A company scientist gives a glowing endorsement of the drug. He reviews a few published studies of the drug and admits that according to those data, the drug has little efficacy but causes some worrisome adverse reactions. He alludes reassuringly to as yet unpublished studies that show that the drug performs much better and has lower risks than the published studies show (but adds, when questioned afterwards, that presently those studies are not available for review outside the company).

I think we could readily agree that the first guy is adding something of real value to the CME and it would be a shame to preclude him from speaking; the next guy is a paid shill and adds nothing from a CME standpoint. If we could write a rule that the first person would be allowed in and the second not, then we'd be where we want to be. Sadly no such general rule that would include all the good cases and exclude all the bad ones is probably feasible.

It would be very nice if we could say, "Look, just write down the general principles and rely on the good judgment of the CME meeting organizers to make the fine-grained, case-by-case judgments." We tried that and the result is the present-day CME mess where commercialization has completely taken over.

So, if throwing out the bath water with an across-the-board rule assures that some babies will be tossed out as well, what do we do? One reaction is to say that so few babies will get the heave-ho that it does not really matter. Supporting this argument is the fact that we must decide what it is that inside company scientists are likely to know about, that neutral outside experts do not. I have a very hard time imagining that this will have a great deal to do with the clinical side of drug development. I would suspect rather that the inside folks will clearly know a lot more about some technicalities of the molecules and the mass production of same, which frankly is the sort of information that puts CME audiences promptly to sleep.

On the other hand I feel badly about a rule that is obviously an exercise in overkill, for baldly political reasons--it feeds into the Pharmapologist accusations that all that we are doing today is an exercise in some "politically correct" hyper-reaction to a basically non-existent problem.

I have always had what I suspect now is an overly simplistic view of the world--that the real problem in the conflict-of-interest realm is not the industry scientist, the guy who has the drug company's name on his business card and on his paycheck, who is known by all and sundry to have been bought and paid for. This person knows to whom she is responsible and can, with perfect integrity, do her job. The problem, I have always assumed, is the presumably "independent" academic physician who claims to be from Harvard or from Stanford or from U. Miami, but who actually takes such a substantial portion of income from industry that he's largely forgotten where public health concerns leave off and industry sales figures pick up. This latter person, who thinks he can walk on both sides of the street without tripping, is the real threat to professional integrity. It's the latter and not the former who should be banned from CME.


Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

You have pointed out why draconian anti-conflict requirement for CME will not serve physicians or the public. Just because one works for industry (which I don't) doesn't automatically taint their integrity or create bias. We physicians know when a speaker's claim might be exaggerated. We know what phrases like, 'unpublished data' mean. If you carve out industry,or those who are on industry payrolls, then we will lose lots of scientific expertise. I'm more interested in the quality of the presenter, than if they have any ties with commercial medicine.

Anonymous said...

The pendulum has not swung too far. Sorry-- but before I read a journal article I first turn to the last page. If the author's drug company ties reads like a Nemeroffian vita, I won't even read the article.

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

Howard, I'm sure you've seen this, but here's a link that will appeal to you.