ProPublica finds academic physicians violating schools’ conflict rules


While journalists have been finding innovative ways to use ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database, the database’s founders, Tracy Weber and AHCJ President Charles Ornstein remain ahead of the curve when it comes to using the freely available data for fresh stories.

This time around, the duo looked for medical schools with strict conflict-of-interest policies and ran their faculty lists through the database. They found dozens of matches, even at elite research institutions. It’s an idea so effective that it’s a wonder nobody thought of it sooner – and apparently the institutions involved feel the same way.

“For God’s sake, if the media can look at these websites, why can’t we?” said David Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University. “Why trust if you can verify?”

Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Pittsburgh drew particularly heavy attention. (On the other side of the coin, UMass Memorial Health Care was singled out as an example of a robust conflict policy.)

Pizzo, Stanford’s dean, said physicians who appear to have violated the policy will be investigated and referred for discipline if necessary. He compared some of their explanations to what a cop might hear after catching a motorist running a late-night stop sign.
“You can give 1,000 reasons: There was nobody around. It’s safe. I looked and didn’t harm anyone,” he said. “The reality is, it’s still a stop sign.”

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And this isn’t just a database story. Weber and Ornstein also found time for a review of various academic conflict of interest policies and point out how policies are weakened through inaction, loopholes and a reliance on self-policing.

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