Pfizer-funded workshop raises questions of ethics

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Christopher Weaver, in a piece from Kaiser Health News and NPR, writes about a Pfizer-funded seminar for journalists. To attend the annual seminar about cancer, hosted by the National Press Foundation, 15 journalists get an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C.

Health care journalists, including HealthNewsReview.org‘s Gary Schwitzer and AHCJ president Charles Ornstein, say reporters need to be careful and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Foundation president Bob Myers says the pharmaceutical company does not have input on the meeting and an attendee of last year’s meeting, AHCJ member Joy Robertson, says she doesn’t remember Pfizer ever being mentioned at the event.

Commenters on the KHN/NPR include AHCJ members Ornstein; Andrew Holtz, M.P.H. (also a board member); Elaine Schattner, M.D.; and Schwitzer. Schattner, a licensed, non-practicing physi­cian and med­ical edu­ca­tor, says “This is precisely how Pfizer and other companies try to influence physicians who, in their sometimes-arrogance, tend to think they’re “above” subtle persuasion. Are journalists any better?”

Journalist Merrill Goozner also has written about the seminar and says that that Pfizer has dictated the overall agenda:

Pfizer didn’t make an unrestricted grant to a journalism training organization. The money is being spent to train journalists in how to cover cancer.

Goozner points out, as does Holtz in his comment on the NPR/KHN piece, that “journalism spends less on training than almost any other profession” and that journalists have few opportunities to get out of the newsroom for professional education.ahcj-principles1

Covering Health wrote about this seminar and this issue last year. It’s worth noting, as we did then, that the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism seek to minimize the possibility and appearance of inappropriate influence from outside parties. Pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and medical device makers are examples of organizations with with AHCJ will not partner. Read AHCJ’s complete fundraising policies.

AHCJ’s Statement of Principles, which identifies challenges that health care reporters face and suggests how to meet those challenges, addresses the topic:

  • Refuse gifts, favors, and special treatment. Refuse meals from drug companies and device manufacturers and refuse to accept unsolicited product samples sent in the mail.
  • Weigh the potential benefits involved in accepting fees, honoraria, free travel, paid expenses from organizers of conferences or events against the desire to preserve our credibility with the audience and the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • Also weigh the potential benefits of accepting awards from organizations sponsored by an entity with a vested interest in health care against our need for credibility.
  • Weigh the potential conflict in accepting support from public, private, or foundation sources.

1 thought on “Pfizer-funded workshop raises questions of ethics

  1. Gary Schwitzer

    Just today, the National Press Foundation invited me to speak at this year’s Pfizer-funded session. From NPF: “You may speak on any topic you like related to journalism or cancer coverage, including matters relating to the current online discussion of this program.”

    That was a gracious, proactive and open-minded move by NPF and I thank them for it and applaud them for it.

    Unfortunately I cannot attend because of a longstanding prior commitment. I have communicated this to NPF and also stated my desire to meet with them to discuss these issues in the future.

    The debate on this issue has been healthy, although, at times a bit acrid. I regret if any of my comments contributed to that tone or were interpreted in the wrong way. My passion runs deep on this issue, as I know it does in those who have voiced differing opinions.

    I’ve devoted my entire career to the improvement of health journalism. I wrote the Statement of Principles of the Association of Health Care Journalists and just wrote an AHCJ guide on how to report on research. I’m traveling >70K miles/yr. – all devoted to health care journalism improvement.

    I look forward to exchanging ideas with NPF.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher, http://www.HealthNewsReview.org

    (I’ve posted this same comment on my blog and on the NPR and Pharmalot sites, where so much discussion has taken place.)

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