Everything you wanted to know about conflicts of interest (even if you weren’t afraid to ask)

Photo: Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr

The May 2 special issue of JAMA is one to bookmark, because its theme is integral to the work of all journalists: reporting on conflicts of interest (COI). And the best part? The whole thing is free to the public — no paywalls.

As much as covering medical research is making sense of the numbers — statistics, p values, absolute risk, the number needed to treat and the rest — it’s also about good, old-fashioned journalism when it looking at all angles of a story. Among the most important elements is uncovering potential conflicts of interests. Conflicts can affect everyone from the researchers who conducted the study to the experts from whom you seek outside comment.

We certainly haven’t neglected discussion of conflicts of interest throughout the core topics on HealthJournalism.org. See, for example, here, here, here, here, and here, among many other examples. However, it’s a complex, challenging issue that journalists (and researchers) should regularly revisit and think about.

Considering potential conflicts of interest primarily as the money researchers may receive from industry to conduct a study is just scratching the surface. Are there ways in which federal funding can pose a conflict of interest? Do all those pharmaceutical gifts in physicians’ offices affect their research, prescribing habits or treatment of patients? What about ideological conflicts of interest — how do you uncover those?

It’s hard to think of what the JAMA issue missed in delving into this thorny issue. Consider these titles from the table of contents:

  • Payments to Physicians: Does the Amount of Money Make a Difference.
  • Addressing Bias and COI Among Biomedical Researchers.
  • Strategies for Addressing a Broader Definition of Conflicts of Interest.
  • Role of Leaders in Fostering Meaningful Collaborations Between Academic Medical Centers and Industry While Also Managing Individual and Institutional Conflicts of Interest.
  • Teaching Medical Students About Conflicts of Interest.
  • Funding, Institutional Conflicts of Interest and Schools of Public Health Realities and Solutions.
  • Conflicts of Interest and Professional Medical Associations Progress and Remaining Challenges.
  • Conflict of Interest in Practice Guidelines Panels.

That’s just a small sample. The issue addresses COIs in the industry overall, at academic medical centers, within professional societies, as it relates to patient care, as it relates to industry interactions and in scholarly publishing. It includes some research articles and several editorials.

There are three main ways that this issue of the journal can benefit journalists:

  1. It can be a source of endless story ideas on looking at local, regional or national conflicts of interest, either using data journalism or taking a more subjective
  2. It provides a broad range of issues and viewpoints that will expand journalists’ understanding of conflicts of interest, help add nuance and context to their work, and perhaps change the way they look for COIs and report on them.
  3. It provides a wealth of potential sources when looking for experts to speak about conflict of interest for a story or on background.

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