Exclusive: Med School moving toward softer reform

An unreleased draft report from U of M Med School Dean Dr. Deborah Powell shows step toward weaker ethics reform at the school.
February 05, 2009

University of Minnesota Medical School Dean Dr. Deborah Powell is moving the institution toward weaker ethics reform than her own task force previously recommended, an unreleased draft report obtained by The Minnesota Daily indicates.
Incorporating some, but not all, aspects of what many viewed as hard-line and progressive recommendations by the school’s conflicts of interest task force, Powell’s draft moves the long-coming policy reform in a much softer direction than expected, sources close to the reform said.
From the 13-page report filed by the task force in August, Powell has solicited comments from faculty and consolidated the recommendations into a two-page draft, which will be the basis for a final report to the Board of Regents in April, said Academic Health Center spokeswoman Molly Portz.
Critics of Powell’s report point to a disconnect between the task force’s recommendations and the draft, saying the dean has eliminated some of the strongest and boldest recommendations with little to no explanation.
Despite a recent announcement from University President Bob Bruininks that she will leave the dean’s post July 1, Powell will remain at the helm of the ethics reform as planned, Portz said.
The controversy from Powell’s latest reform proposal is just the most recent example of a tenure at the school that been mired in questions over her position on the board of directors for Pepsi Co. and conflicts of interest concerns.
Even the Medical School task force’s co-chairman, Dr. Leo Furcht, a Powell appointee, was disciplined for severe violations of the University’s conflict of interest policy in 2004 – a fact that was not disclosed to other members of the task force until reported by the Star Tribune late last year.
An inquiry panel then stated Furcht “at a minimum should not be allowed to perform the conflict of interest responsibilities of a department head.”
A signed letter from Powell accompanied the panel’s findings, according to a copy provided to The Daily.
Unexplained changes
Key elements of the task force’s recommendations, believed by some to be among the most needed changes, are notably absent from Powell’s draft, among them a recommendation to sever financial ties between industry and continuing medical education programs.
If enacted, that recommendation “would’ve put Minnesota on the map,” task force member and University journalism professor Gary Schwitzer said.
Powell also rejected the task force’s recommendation to eliminate the level at which Medical School faculty and staff would be required to disclose financial relationships with industry.
Powell recommended lowering the school’s current $10,000 threshold to $500, while the task force sought to do away with it all together.
The task force recommended that faculty fully disclose the source of research funding as well, particularly those with clinical trials funded by industry, something Powell did not include in her recommendations.
A semi-closed process
Although the task force filed its recommendations to AHC leadership last summer, some members of the task force and faculty at the school contacted by The Daily were unaware the new draft existed.
Schwitzer said he felt in the dark, and news of Powell’s draft report “blindsided” him.
Powell’s draft, dated January 2009, has been circulating through the Medical School at the discretion of the department heads who received it.
Dr. Aaron Friedman, head of the pediatrics department, sent the draft to his entire department.
“I wanted them to review this most recent draft and offer any comments, concerns, or questions,” Friedman said in a statement provided by Portz. Faculty in his department had previously been given the opportunity to comment on earlier drafts of the proposed policy changes.
As of late Thursday Portz had not confirmed which department heads had received Powell’s draft report.
‘These are certainly weaker’
Powell’s recommendations are weaker in many ways compared to those from the conflict of interest task force, Gabriel Silverman, American Medical Student Association Scorecard director said.
Still, even Powell’s recommendations are an improvement from the current conflict of interest policies, which earned a ‘D’ from the AMSA Scorecard in June of last year.
In an interview with The Daily last month, Silverman said AMSA would commend the school if it enacted the task force’s recommendations. Now he’s not so sure.
“It’s certainly not as strong as the initial recommendations, “ he said. “Whether I would call it a strong policy overall I’m not sure.”
They’re “borderline,” he added.
Silverman also pointed to the loss of the provision separating industry ties to continuing medical education at the school as a concern with Powell’s recommendations.
The education program is the best way for doctors to stay current on medical advancements, he said, calling it “irresponsible” to allow that relationship to continue.
“If a doctor in the community can't go to a prestigious public university like Minnesota for continuing education programs that are free from industry sponsorship, then where can she go?” he asked.

Emma L. Carew is a senior staff reporter. Jake Grovum is editor of the projects desk.

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