To be absolutely clear, the University of Minnesota Medical School is taking a pioneering and praiseworthy step in exploring a tough new conflict-of-interest policy for its staff.
As state funding becomes ever more of a question mark, universities everywhere are looking to mine the commercial applications of their researchers' work. This year has brought numerous examples of the need for caution and guidance in building these relationships with industry. Iowa's Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has spearheaded investigations that have uncovered numerous instances of top researchers at prestigious medical schools who failed to disclose drug industry payments or report other conflicts. It's a problem that has consequences far beyond academia: These researchers are often hugely influential, with their work and pronouncements shaping medical care across the nation.
And that's why recent revelations about the U medical school task force charged with writing the ethics guidelines are so disappointing, even sad. This panel's work is incredibly important, protecting staff and patients while developing a model framework for other academic medical centers grappling with the same issues. And yet a major misstep by the university's medical school dean, Dr. Deborah Powell, has significantly undermined the task force's credibility and recommendations.
According to a Sunday Star Tribune story by Maura Lerner, Josephine Marcotty and Janet Moore, Powell appointed as cochair of the task force a man who'd just come off three years of sanctions for his own serious conflict-of-interest violations involving a private company he owned. Had it not been for the newspaper story, made possible by documents obtained through the state's open records laws, neither the public nor some members of the panel would have known of Leo Furcht's past.
At first glance, he might have seemed an ideal candidate for the job. Furcht is the U's chairman of lab medicine and pathology, with a track record of entrepreneurship and involvement in national medical organizations on conflict-of-interest issues. But in May 2004, Powell herself had a disciplinary letter placed in Furcht's file after internal investigators found him in "serious violation" of the U's conflict policy for steering a $501,000 drug company grant to a firm he owned and later sold for $9.5 million in stock, sharing 5 percent with the university. Because it was a personnel matter, the disciplinary action against Furcht wasn't made public.
Powell has been a respected leader since she became dean in October 2002. And that's why her about-face on Furcht makes so little sense. Why would she ban him from business-sponsored research in 2004 and then give him a leadership role in forming the medical school's policy on this three years later? Powell defended her decision Monday, saying the sanctions against Fuhrct were over and that his national experience on conflict-of-interest issues and his ability to lead large groups made him a good fit for the job. "It made sense to me. The pluses outweighed the minuses,'' she said, adding that Furcht was one of many working on the recommendations.
That reasoning might have flown if Powell had appointed Furcht as a regular member of the panel and then disclosed his own conflict-of-interest violations. But Powell did neither. She made him a cochair, and she said nothing about his past improprieties. That Powell's husband is a faculty member in Furcht's department adds to the concerns. So do the bizarre insistences from other U faculty that Furcht's leadership is needed because, as one professor put it, "he knows what a conflict looks like.''
The new guidelines under development at the U are an important step in restoring the public's faith after a year of scandal involving doctors and drug firms elsewhere. But unless the U acknowledges that mistakes were made, this well-intentioned effort may well backfire, creating more doubt than confidence.