Psychiatrists Who Hid Big Pharma Money Now Face Inquiry

By Eliza Strickland | June 10, 2008 12:39 pm

money billsThree influential psychiatrists from Harvard Medical School seem to have been caught with their hands in the drug-laced cookie jar, and now they’re in big trouble. Two days after it was alleged that the three doctors failed to report a collective $4.2 million in payments from pharmaceutical companies, Harvard and the affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital have launched an investigation into the doctors’ behavior.

The scandal has revived questions about conflicts of interest within the medical profession. The three psychiatrists, Joseph Biederman, Timothy E. Wilens, and Thomas Spencer, have conducted extensive research in child psychiatry, on mental health topics including attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and depression. They have often recommended treating young patients aggressively with medications, but they were apparently receiving large payments from the drug-makers at the same time.

The information came to light when Iowa Senator Charles Grassley compared the researchers initial disclosure statements from 2000 to 2007 with drug company records. In their initial statements the three doctors reported only a few hundred thousand dollars over the seven year span; after Senator Grassley’s investigators pointed out discrepancies, they upped their estimates considerably. Dr. Biederman and Dr. Wilens then estimated that they had each received $1.6 million from various drug companies, while Dr. Spencer estimated that he received more than $1 million. However, investigators say that even those amounts may not be a full accounting.

As the psychiatrists also received funding from the National Institutes of Health, they may have fallen afoul of rules governing financial disclosures of income from corporations. John Burklow, a spokesman for the National Institutes of Health, said: “If there have been violations of N.I.H. policy — and if research integrity has been compromised — we will take all the appropriate action within our power to hold those responsible accountable. This would be completely unacceptable behavior, and N.I.H. will not tolerate it.”

The federal grants received by Drs. Biederman and Wilens were administered by Massachusetts General Hospital, which in 2005 won $287 million in such grants. The health institutes could place restrictions on the hospital’s grants or even suspend them altogether [The New York Times].

The three psychiatrists have all denied any wrong-doing, and say they believed they were following appropriate conflict-of-interest policies. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts State Legislature is attempting to ban pharmaceutical companies from giving gifts to health care professionals, but the proposed state law wouldn’t prohibit researchers from taking large fees from companies.

The incident has sparked outraged editorials filled with calls for reform, like so: Their failure to divulge their conflicts is striking proof that today’s requirements for reporting payments from industry — essentially an honor system in which researchers are supposed to reveal their outside income to their institutions — needs to be strengthened.

Senator Grassley and Senator Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin, have introduced a bill that would require drug and device makers to report annually any payments to doctors that exceed $500 a year. That is the best way to ensure that conflicts of interest are transparent to all [The New York Times].

Image: istockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Gina Pera

    Shame on Discover.

    I haven’t read your magazine in a long time, and I won’t be reading it again.,

    How amusing it must be for your editors to slap up a sensational headline like this–without the facts, without thinking of the repercussions, without thinking of any possible agenda behind the politicians grandstanding on this issue.

    This is an embarrassment for a magazine that ostensibly covers science.

    Either learn how to report responsibly or shut it down.

  • Gina Pera

    And “drug-laced cookie jar”?

    Can you say medication-phobic, anti-science, 18th century mindset?

    Yes, your lede says it all.

    I don’t know what kind of science you think you’re covering, but it’s not brain science.

  • Pingback: The Black Hole in The Cost of Healthcare: Big Pharma and Transparency « The Invisible Web()

  • Peer Advocate

    LOL, I love the meme that any criticism of psychiatric medications is “anti-scientific.”

    Here are some uncomfortable facts for the pharmaceutical companies:

    25% of people recover from schizophrenia after 1 episode, and will never need medication.

    Another 30% will recover after 10 years and never need medication there after.

    Yet, according to the World Health Organization, in Africa the recovery rate for schizophrenia is much higher than in the US… and they DO NOT use medication.

    Perhaps any claim of “enlightenment” in regards to treatment of mental illness needs to take a look in the mirror when dehumanizing diagnosis and social isolation are mainstays in the “treatment” process.

    Anyways, great job keeping us up to date on the insidious nature of the inherent conflict of interest between the medical profession and the 70 billion dollar a year pharmaceutical industry.

  • Peer Advocate

    From the NY Times:

    “Dr. Biederman is one of the most influential researchers in child psychiatry and is widely admired for focusing the field’s attention on its most troubled young patients. Although many of his studies are small and often financed by drug makers, his work helped to fuel a controversial 40-fold increase from 1994 to 2003 in the diagnosis of pediatric bipolar disorder, which is characterized by severe mood swings, and a rapid rise in the use of antipsychotic medicines in children. The Grassley investigation did not address research quality.”

    Antipsychotics are not approved for children, and, antipsychotics kill children as well as creating other severe health risks:

  • Peer Advocate

    Wow, I did a little research on Gina Pera. She has a book coming out in August pimping medication for ADHD. The forward is written by Dr. Russell Barkely.

    The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) lists Russell Barkley’s conflicts of interest outside the parameters of practice set by the AACAP: “[He] receives or has received research support, acted as a consultant and/or served on a speaker’s bureau for Eli Lilly and Company, Shire Pharmaceuticals Group plc, and McNeil Pediatrics. Dr. Barkley also has or has had books/intellectual property with Guilford Publications.”

    No wonder why Gina Pera seemed a little defensive. Shame on Gina for dismissing Discover’s article without disclosing the fact that she has inherent conflicts of interest related to this very issue.

    I have never read Gina Pera before, I will will certainly not start now.

  • Henry LaChance

    Shame on Peer Advocate for wanting to deprive people of the right to feel better and live their lives in accordance with their desires and hopes–instead of misfiring neurons.

    And isn’t it amazing that people with schizophrenia undergo miraculous cures in Africa of all places. Could it be that their “cure” is a convenient part of an inability to treat the condition due to treatment’s costly nature? Yes, I think so.

    My guess is that PA’s “advocating” against anyone who tells him he should seek treatment for his own brain disorder.

    Denial is a huge problem in mental illness, as well as oppositionality and accusing everyone else of having the problem.

    Unfortunately, lacking a healthy social life due to their symptoms, these people often find refuge in making ad hominem attacks on the internet.

  • Micael elder

    Gina Pera is a pharmaceutical shill. She advocates dangerous stimulant medications for children as young as five years old. She is a criminal masquerading as an ADHD expert, which by the way, she has never had.

  • Max Minton

    Those dangerous stimulants, Micael… is that crack cocaine? Or standard ADHD meds? I would ask you about your last sentence, but it’s so incoherent I can’t make sense of it. Apparently Gina Pera has never had an ADHD expert who turned out to be a masquerading criminal? Shame on her. We should all have two or three of those, huh?

  • Wonderful

    The name is Michael, moron.

    Pera the witch does not know what it is like living with ADHD. She knows what it is like living with somoene whom has ADHD. I pity that poor lesbian’s soul.

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