A committee that reviews conflicts of interest has several members with connections to drug and device makers.
Dr. David Polly, a nationally known spine surgeon at the University of Minnesota who has come under fire for his consulting relationship with medical device maker Medtronic Inc., serves on a university committee that reviews and monitors conflicts of interest among doctors and faculty at the U's Academic Health Center.
Polly isn't the only member of the U's Conflict Review Committee with industry ties: Dr. Scott Crow, a professor in the medical school's psychiatry department, received about $273,000 from various drug companies between 2002 and 2008, according to Minnesota Board of Pharmacy records.
The news comes as the university mulls a new conflict-of-interest policy that attempts to balance its relationships with business. A draft of the proposed policy, which bans corporate gifts and product endorsements by U faculty and staff, was released last month.
Having members of a committee with industry ties is "essential," said university spokesman Daniel Wolter. "They bring expertise and a keen understanding of the nature of those relationships and steps that can be taken to manage potential conflicts."
The Academic Health Center encompasses six schools and colleges, including the medical school, which has been at the center of a controversy for more than a year over its ties to drug and medical device companies. A high-profile specialist who heads the medical school's spine unit, Polly was paid about $1.2 million between 2003 and 2007 in consulting fees by the Fridley-based medical device giant -- earnings that have prompted reviews by Congress, the U and Medtronic.
Reached late Friday, Polly said he was asked to join the Conflict Review Committee in 2004, and has only attended two meetings since then because of his busy surgical schedule. The committee reviews potential conflicts of interest among faculty and staff, and then devises a plan to manage the conflict if one exists.
"They were looking for people who had experience with trying to deal with conflicts and trying to work through them in a university setting," Polly said.
In 2006, it was Polly's own consulting ties with Medtronic that came before the committee. The committee subsequently determined that a conflict existed because Polly had led a government-sponsored animal study using a Medtronic product -- while he was a paid company consultant. Members agreed the conflict was "manageable," but stipulated that Polly could not inform Medtronic of any findings from the study until they were made public. Polly, who recused himself from the review of his case, agreed to follow the committee's recommendation.
The committee's review of Polly's relationship with Medtronic became public last July when Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to U President Robert Bruininks asking pointed questions about Polly and how the U monitors potential conflicts of interest between medical school doctors and device companies. Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has been investigating the ties between industry and drug and device firms, particularly in the area of research.
Crow, another member of the 19-member Conflict Review Committee and an expert on eating disorders, received $273,276 in payments from drugmakers Merck & Co, Ortho-McNeil, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co. between 2002 and 2008, state records show. Of that amount, $103,468 was for "research and development investigator fees" from GlaxoSmithKline, while the remaining payments appear to be honoraria for participating in professional meetings.
When reached late Friday, Crow declined to discuss the payments in detail. When asked if the amount was accurate, Crow said "It could be, I haven't reviewed the records."
In addition, committee member Doris Taylor, the Medtronic-Bakken Chair in Cardiac Repair and director of the U's Center for Cardiovascular Repair, received $1,250 from GlaxoSmithKline in 2003 for a "medical education event."
Minnesota is among a handful of states that require drug companies to publicly post payments to doctors. Part of the health care reform packages currently being debated in Congress calls for drug and medical device companies to publicly reveal payments to doctors, and some drug companies already post the information on their websites. However, the U's proposed conflict of interest of policy does not call for public disclosure of these relationships.
The proposed conflict of interest policy incorporates some of the tenets of an earlier document crafted for the medical school under former dean Deborah Powell.
However, the Star Tribune revealed last year that the head of that task force, Dr. Leo Furcht, had been disciplined for an ethical lapse in 2004 after secretly steering a $501,000 research grant to his own company. The medical school policy was subsequently shelved when Bruininks determined that a broader policy was needed. While university officials say the current draft is one of the toughest in the nation, Dr. Steven Miles, a U bioethicist, wrote on a health news blog Friday that the policy is "incomplete and flawed."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752