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Recommended Reading, “Regulating Conflicts of Interest in Research: The Paper Tiger Needs Real Teeth”

Posted Jul 28 2010 8:01pm
Tiger, Woodcut on Paper, Franz Marc (1912)

Tiger, Woodcut on Paper, Franz Marc (1912)

Jesse Goldner’s Regulating Conflicts of Interest in Research:  The Paper Tiger Needs Real Teeth , 53 St. Louis U. L.J. 1211 (2009), is a must-read for anyone who has anything to do with oversight of researchers’ conflicts of interest.  The article reflects an insider’s understanding of academic physicians’ perspectives on this still-contentious topic, provides a terrific survey of the literature, and proposes regulatory fixes by the feds that HHS will hopefully seriously consider.  The article’s timing is perfect, given that HHS is receiving comments until August 19, 2010 on proposed changes to its conflict of interest regulations.  See http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/coi/ . Even in the short time since the publication of Goldner’s article, HHS OIG has issued yet another report on conflicts of interest management, entitled “How Grantees Manage Financial Conflicts of Interest in Research Funded by the National Institutes of Health,” (Nov. 2009), available at http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-03-07-00700.pdf .  Based upon an in-depth audit of 41 grantee institutions that reported conflicts in FY 2006, the OIG found that equity interests represent the most pervasive form of financial conflict of interest. The most popular tool employed by entities managing conflicts is disclosure to publications or at academic presentations; entities only rarely required the reduction or elimination of conflicts.  As important, and unsurprising based upon AAMC surveys, is the unreliability of the conflict reporting mechanisms used by most academic institutions.

The OIG report emphasizes the need for increased oversight of conflicts of interest.  Academic medical centers have had plenty of time and forewarning to address the issue but, as demonstrated by a vignette described by Goldner about his own efforts to accomplish this through the IRB which he chaired, faculty resistance is significant.  Consequently, Goldner is exactly right in calling upon HHS to issue aggressive regulations that accomplish the necessary reforms.  He would require the establishment of conflict of interest committees at every research institution, comprised primarily of independent members, to which faculty would report all financial relationships that create conflicts of interest. Resolution of such conflicts would be a condition precedent to proceeding with proposed research, and violations would result in significant penalties, including debarment from research.

As shall be discussed in a forthcoming Seton Hall White Paper entitled The Limits of Disclosure as a Response to Conflicts of Interest in Clinical Research, I do not have confidence in benefits accruing from requiring disclosure of conflicts to research participants in consent forms, although research participants do have a right to know of such conflicts.  This is a minor quibble.  Goldner’s article is a great contribution to the literature. 

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