MUSC changes conflict of interest policy in light of media reports

MUSC's Ashley River Tower

Medical University of South Carolina leaders announced Friday that they have enacted changes to the school's conflict of interest reporting policy and have reprimanded one faculty member under the new method.

The announcement follows a November 2010 Post and Courier report showing the pharmaceutical industry funneled nearly $3 million to South Carolina doctors in 18 months, prompting concerns over whether the cash payments influence physicians' prescription writing. Officials at MUSC, whose doctors had received the lion's share of industry payments in the Lowcountry, said in the report they had struggled to enforce policies that are supposed provide oversight on the relationships between their staff and drug companies.

In the wake of the newspaper report, MUSC changed the way its doctors report potential conflicts of interest "to better capture full compliance from all MUSC faculty," Provost Mark Sothmann said in a statement.

MUSC officials were unavailable Friday afternoon to elaborate or answer follow-up questions.

In its review, MUSC found 16 staff members noncompliant with its conflict-of-interest reporting standards.

One of the 16 received a letter of reprimand.

The other 15 failed to complete full reports because they either were on extended leave or employed only part-time, Sothmann said. Supervisors of those employees have "individualized plans" for completing their compliance reports, he said.

Sothmann did not name the staffers in his statement.

"MUSC considers this level of compliance an enormous success," he said in the statement.

Sothmann said the Post and Courier article also prompted the university to designate a "working group" tasked with comparing MUSC's conflict of interest policy and enforcement with those at "peer institutions." The group will recommend additional changes to the university's policy, designing "an organizational structure that will enhance both the education of faculty to appropriately report conflict of interest and necessary enforcement," according to the statement.

Earlier this month, MUSC sent representatives to Philadelphia for a American Association of Medical Colleges forum on conflict of interest, Sothmann said.

The data in question, compiled by national investigative news organization ProPublica and analyzed by the Post and Courier, showed payments that

seven drug companies made to doctors across the country between January 2009 and June 2010.

The South Carolina data showed doctors at private practices and at other hospitals across the state also took money from pharmaceutical companies to talk about drugs. Doctors at teaching hospitals such as MUSC are sought after because they are accustomed to speaking before groups of people.

While the payments are legal, critics charge they are unethical, creating a conflict of interest that could cause doctors to ramp up prescriptions for drugs they are paid to hawk during speaking engagements.

The doctors interviewed for the Post and Courier story said the payments do not influence prescription decisions. But some patients appear to be skeptical: An October poll conducted by Consumer Reports in conjunction with ProPublica showed that three-quarters of the 1,250 people questioned said they disapproved of doctors taking money in exchange for promoting specific drugs to other doctors. About 77 percent of them said they would be concerned about the quality of treatment or advice they got from a doctor who took payments from drug companies, according to the poll.