The scandal emerging around José Baselga, a renowned doctor who failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from life science companies, is a case for transparency. The doctor neglected to mention his ties to industry in journals in which his research was published and at events where he shared his findings.
Recently, The New York Times reported on a study it pursued with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization, regarding Baselga’s conduct. Baselga, who is the chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, is financially linked to a number of companies big and small.
Why Are These Relationships a Problem?
Among his associations, he is a board member or holds an advisory role at Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and others. He has a stake in a number of startups that test cancer therapies. Also, Baselga “played a key role in the development of breakthrough drugs that have revolutionized treatments for breast cancer,” according to The Times.
Clearly, these financial ties can cause conflicts of interest when Baselga is executing research and publishing findings in medical journals, such as The New England Journal of Medicine or The Lancet. The American Association for Cancer Research has financial disclosure rules, which Baselga did not follow, according to the story, despite being president of the group. He failed to note payments he received from companies connected to cancer research when publishing in the American Association for Cancer Research’s publication, Cancer Discovery, even though he had been one of the editors-in-chief.
Potential Conflicts of Interest
In addition, at a recent conference, Baselga shared a positive outlook on the results of two Roche clinical trials that were described negatively by many others. This is noteworthy because since 2014, Baselga has earned more than $3 million from Roche, according to the Times story.
When confronted, Baselga suggested these were merely unintended lapses. The punishment, which has never been handed down, is rather lenient in these kinds of instances. For example, the AACR says it would ban those who fail to disclose these kinds of conflicts from publishing for three years. But it has never been enforced.
In 2013, however, the government began requiring pharmaceutical, biomedical, and medical device companies to disclose payments and transfers of value made to physicians or health care organizations. In fact, in scanning the Open Payments database, The Times realized Baselga received $3.5 million from nine companies. Indeed, the point of reporting this data is to demonstrate ethical conduct and allow patients to see whether their doctor or hospital is prescribing medication or devices from companies with which they have ties.
Truly, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Having to share their financial connections is a way to keep physicians honest. Every life science organization should see Baselga as a reminder of why transparency is so important. Here are some reasons why:
Missteps Undo Your Good Work
Baselga was a superhero fighting cancer. Now, this story has readers wondering about his motivation and questioning whether conflicts of interest influenced the advice or even prescriptions he gave to patients and the devices and equipment he purchased for the hospital.
Forces Questions about Results
In the same vein, a lack of transparency also makes the clinical research you conduct seem tainted. Certainly, experts will question the results of studies in which you have participated. Were you paid off to come up with that positive conclusion? Or is it real?
A Shift in Focus
Generally, doctors want to help people. When they fail to be fully transparent, they end up having to explain themselves. This ends up being a distraction from their more important work, such as clinical trials, seeing patients, doing research, etc.
Makes the Companies Look Bad
When the physicians working with companies are not transparent, it makes it seem as though both parties have something to hide. It feeds the notion that pharmaceutical and medical device companies are looking for money and not necessarily the patient’s best interests. As a result, the mistrust between the public and the industry only grows.
A lack of transparency makes someone look suspicious. Even if he is innocent and well-intentioned, Baselga took actions that make it seem as though he recognizes how his financial gains cloud the veracity of his findings and practice. No matter what happens moving forward, his reputation will be somewhat marred. The companies with whom he works will also have a stain on their record.
Honesty Is the Best Policy
Of course, life science companies must continue to develop rich relationships with physicians and hospitals. No one is suggesting otherwise. Companies and doctors who create life-saving medications and devices should be able to make a profit, too. In fact, these relationships are vital to the lifeblood of the organization but also to humanity in general.
Obviously, Baselga could have avoided all this simply by sharing his affiliations. His story, which is in many ways still unfolding, is further proof that transparency is the key to gaining trust from the public. When you are honest, people can judge for themselves.