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When disclosure doesn't disclose anything

Posted Jun 29 2014 11:33pm
A short while ago, I displayed a video from Bloomberg TV in which Dr. Michael Stifelman from NYU's Langone Robotic Surgery Center makes a number of assertions about the virtues of surgery conducted with the daVinci robot.  By all accounts, Dr. Stifelman is an excellent surgeon, but his comments were so in tune with those emitted by Intuitive Surgical, the maker of the robot, that my curiosity was piqued.  Could it be that he, like other doctors who have hawked this technology , has received financial support from the company?

I didn't want to make any assumptions on such a matter.  Fortunately, NYU has a requirement for annual disclosure by members of the faculty about industry relations and compensation.  So, I wrote to the institution and asked for copies of Dr. Stifleman's forms.  The two-part response
1 -- All disclosures from our medical staff are confidential, so we’re unable to provide the information you request.

Sure enough, the rules say, "All disclosures will be kept confidential and disclosed only on a need-to-know basis." I replied:

"As a matter of public confidence, it is hard to understand why disclosures would be confidential.  If you were a patient, wouldn't you want to have the right to know if your MD was receiving payments from a pharma company or equipment manufacturer?"

2 -- We have policies in place concerning the endorsement of medical devices and the use of the institution's name in support of private companies and we are reviewing the matter you have brought to our attention.

I replied:

"Would you please provide the links to these policies so I can read them.  Also, will you please send me the result of the review you are conducting?  When might that be completed, and who is conducting it?"

To date, there has been no further response on these matters.   So I went looking.  I didn't have far to go.  Check out this video from 2012.  Here's a screen print:

In case you didn't get the message from the caption, here's a closeup of a "product placement" within the video:


Note that this video has a copyright by Intuitive Surgical, not NYU.  When a distinguished doctor allows his name and, indeed, his surgical acumen, to be used in support of a company-sponsored video, isn't that an implicit endorsement of a medical device?  Given Dr. Stifelman's very public position as head of the program at NYU , doesn't this amount to use of the institution's name in support of a private company?  Check out this video from the school and, again, see the very intentional conjoining of the NYU name and reputation with that of this equipment vendor.


Perhaps these examples, plus the Bloomberg TV piece, will help in "reviewing the matter you have brought to our attention."

Let's get back to disclosures, though.  Dr. Stifelman makes no attempt to keep confidential his testimonials from patients .

I in no way mean to take anything away from the feelings of grateful patients, and I am pleased they had excellent experiences, but it seems to me to be unseemly to use the observations and comments of people like this in public support of the doctor's practice when other matters--like potential financial support from medical equipment companies--remain behind a veil of secrecy.
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