Conflict of Interest Rampant in Academic-Industry Partnerships

A study published in BMJ measured the prevalence, annual compensation, and beneficial stock ownership of directors from publicly traded healthcare companies who had academic affiliations.

Analysis of the prevalence, characters, and compensation of academicians who lend their expertise to the healthcare industry has identified ethical conflicts that could arise because of the dual role played by the experts.

Published in BMJ, the study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh measured the prevalence, annual compensation, and beneficial stock ownership of directors from publicly traded healthcare companies on the NASDAQ or Ney York Stock Exchange in 2013, who were simultaneously affiliated with academic institutions. Including 446 healthcare companies initially, the authors found 442 with publicly accessible disclosures on their board of directors, 180 of which had at least 1 academically affiliated directors. The 279 academically-affiliated directors were faculty in 85 geographically diverse non-profit academic institutions, 19 of the top 20 National Institutes of Health—funded medical schools.

Designations ranged from CEO or vice president of health systems and hospitals; university presidents, provosts, chancellors; medical school deans or presidents. The combined annual compensation earned by these individuals was nearly $55,000,000 (median individual compensation was $193,000). Combined stock ownership was 59,831,477 (median number was 50,699).

The authors based their research on the premise that secondary financial interests of individuals and companies can adversely influence primary patient care, research, and education goals. While professional societies have financial disclosures and restrictions in place, the focus has been on individuals who conduct industry-sponsored research; academics who serves on the board of directors of these for-profit companies have not received much scrutiny.

Their research, the authors conclude, showed that the compensation the directors receive for lending their expertise to the company often surpasses common academic clinical salaries. The resulting conflict of interest is beyond that of simple consulting relationships and needs a more detailed review by professional societies and academic institutions.