By Carol Yost
In an article on Friday, January 11th, published in collaboration with the nonprofit journalism publication ProPublica, the New York Times reported that the nonprofit Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, after being dogged by scandal, is officially taking steps to eliminate possible conflicts of interest. Earlier reports by the Times and ProPublica had generated the scandal by uncovering the ways staff members of the hospital had made lucrative deals with for-profit companies that manufacture doctors’ tools of trade—medicines and medical equipment—and provide healthcare.
High-level executives at the cancer center—all doctors in their own right—had also been serving on the corporate boards of drug and healthcare companies which in some cases had paid them hundreds of thousands of dollars for their “service.” These companies clearly hoped, not just for medical advice (if at all), but for immense profits from business facilitated by these doctors’ recommendations to Sloan-Kettering and possibly other institutions. Biases could also arise from this compensation when these doctors conduct medical studies and write articles for medical journals.
Now these top executives are barred from serving on corporate boards of the drug and healthcare companies. They also, along with leading researchers, will be limited in the ways they can profit from work developed by the cancer center. In addition, they are prohibited from investing in start-up companies that Memorial Sloan-Kettering has helped to found. Sloan-Kettering employees representing it on corporate boards are prohibited from accepting any personal compensation for this, such as stock options in these companies.
A 2014 study found that about 40 percent of the largest publicly traded drug companies had leaders of academic medical centers on their boards.
Sloan-Kettering’s chief medical officer, Dr. José Baselga, resigned days after it was reported that he had neglected to disclose millions of dollars in payments from drug and healthcare companies in dozens of articles he had written for medical journals. He also resigned from the boards of Bristol Myers Squibb and of Varian Medical Systems (a radiation equipment manufacturer). He then got a job with AstraZeneca to run its oncology department.
An executive vice president of the hospital received $1.4 million for representing Memorial Sloan-Kettering on the board of a newly public company.
Hospital chief executive Craig B. Thompson also got into trouble for conflicts of interest. He has stepped down from the boards of Merck (which makes an important cancer drug, and in 2017 had paid him about $300,000), and Charles River Laboratories, which assists in drug development. Even so, some doctors have called for his ouster as a leader who has not guided the cancer center down an ethical path. They feel the for-profit ties of numerous hospital executives could be corrupting the hospital’s mission.
There are still doctors at the hospital serving on the boards of for-profit companies, but this number may decrease. It has already gone from 14 to 9.
The hospital itself is not above making lucrative arrangements with for-profit companies, as when it made a deal with an artificial intelligence company founded by three doctors employed in various capacities by the hospital; it licensed images of 25 million patient tissue slides. Of course the doctors must also have profited. This could be explained away as a means of meeting any hospital’s enormous expenses, but anywhere profit lurks, there is the danger of corruption.
The hospital is currently reviewing the different ways its staff members are linked to for-profit companies and deciding what additional steps to take. So are other prominent cancer centers that are alarmed at the revelations about Sloan-Kettering. They also have member doctors serving on for-profit boards.
Surely all for-profit arrangements at a hospital should be stopped because of the ethically compromising situations they create, but Memorial Sloan-Kettering is studying the matter.