In December, non-profit media outlet ProPublica published information about a dozen Stanford School of Medicine faculty members who had accepted payments from pharmaceutical companies, mostly in exchange for the faculty members giving promotional talks on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies. Accepting these payments violates the Stanford Industry Interactions Policy (SIIP) enacted in 2006, which prohibits faculty involved with education from accepting gifts from industry. Faculty members whose interactions are research-oriented are not covered under SIIP. Accepting the payments is also a direct violation of a policy created in 2009 banning faculty from giving paid promotional speeches for pharmaceutical companies. As a result, the choice of the faculty to take the payments was both dishonest and wrong, as they have recognized.
The reasoning behind the school policies is clear: taking money from pharmaceutical companies creates conflicts of interest in an area that should be based on the best interests of science, and of patients, not the incomes of doctors or companies. Doctors maintaining these kinds of relationships with pharmaceutical companies easily could be inclined to unduly favor the company’s brand-name drug instead of alternatives when dealing with patients.
After five months, the School of Medicine has taken disciplinary action against five faculty members for these policy violations. Following a preliminary investigation in December, School of Medicine Dean Philip Pizzo stated that some of the accused faculty members had understandable confusion regarding Stanford’s policies, while others’ explanations were hard to reconcile with the policies. While the fact that seven of the 12 indiscretions were apparently due to confusion speaks well of the intentions of the faculty members, this editorial board hopes that following this investigation, the School of Medicine will take steps to clarify its policies in order to maintain the integrity of the institution and its faculty members.
We would also like to praise the Medical School for enforcing ethics rules. We recognize that there is a fine line between cooperation with industry that benefits society and relationships with industry that jeopardize the integrity of the medical community. It is important, however, to constantly evaluate policies and actions in order to keep the best interests of patients and society as the primary concern.
Stanford is a global leader in biomedical innovation, and as such the University must hold its faculty, across all disciplines, to a high standard. The School of Medicine is astute to recognize that long-term success depends on the unassailable credibility of scientific research. Keeping medical professors unaffiliated with corporate interests plays a key role in assuring that ethical concerns do not compromise the scientific process.
We believe that these violations jeopardize the reputation of the University, and thus are pleased that the School of Medicine is taking disciplinary action. We can only hope that their actions will fit the severity of these violations. While the Medical School has not released details of the disciplinary action, we encourage them to do so as a means of discouraging future violations. Our hope is that this can stand as an example of how seriously Stanford University regards its reputation as a leading research university of the highest academic and ethical standard.