Sunday, October 14, 2012

“Actually, it’s worse than you know…”

The life of frauds and whistleblowers in the medical sciences:

I travelled to Telford last month to hear Wilmshurst give a lecture to the Royal Statistical Society on libel and other barriers to exposing research misconduct. It took me back to 1996 when we invited him to come to the BMJ and give a talk—behind closed doors—to our staff and advisers and colleagues from the Lancet. He reeled off case after case of misconduct, many of them involving prominent people. The audience listed intently, but I was unsure of the reaction. Might somebody leap up and say “How dare you accuse x of misconduct. He is one of the great men of British medicine”? In fact in my memory the reaction was the opposite. People said things like “Actually, it’s worse than you know…”

Now 16 years later Wilmshurst has a longer and updated list, and somebody in the audience asked if he thought things are getting better or worse. He thinks probably worse: he’s had seven whistleblowers contact him in the last two months.
Lot's and lot's and lot's of anecdotes and case studies, but when will there be more research as to causes and mechanisms, and when will there be real consequences to prevent this in the future?
Perhaps strangely it was his first story that best captured the corruption that Wilmshurst has been fighting all his professional life. It was the early 80s at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and Wilmshurst was doing research into amrinone, a new drug for heart failure manufactured by Sterling Winthrop, a company since taken over. The drug was supposed to increase myocardial contractility, but Wilmshurst found that it didn’t. Worse, it had serious side effects. Wilmshurst and his boss prepared to publish, but Sterling Winthrop, the manufacturers of the drug, threatened legal action. The company also asked if Wilmshurst and his boss would be willing to meet with their experts. They agreed. The message was that St Thomas’ was getting very different results from everybody else and that their lab would be discredited if they were to publish.
And by the way, the next person who ignores the countless lifes of patients that have been endangered by medical fraud and says "Well, but science is self correcting" will be diagnosed with a mental disorder, pumped full of fraudulently tested pharmaceuticals and put into a lunatic asylum for the rest of his life.
One of the things that seems to make Wilmshurst so cheerful is the black humour of his stories. Many of them involve doctors who are guilty of misdemeanours but who sit in judgement on others. He told the story of Peter Richards who decided to bury the fact that Clive Handler, a doctor, at Northwick Park Hospital, was found guilty of using NHS research funds to subsidise his private practice at a time when Richards was medical director of the hospital and chair of the professional conduct committee of the GMC. Previously he had been dean of St Mary’s Medical School, prorector for medical education at Imperial College, and chair of the Council of Deans of UK Medical School and Faculties. When Handler eventually appeared before the GMC, the GMC’s lawyers ask that Richards stand down from chairing the committee. As Wilmshurst said, it’s as if a judge at the Old Bailey were to say “I’ll have to excuse myself from hearing this case as I helped the accused bury the body.” After having to stand down from this committee Richards continued to chair other conduct committees. Wilmshurst told several stories of doctors who had been found guilty of research misconduct but gone on to be deans and others in charge of researchers.
Like we have independent investigation, prosecution and courts for criminal cases, we need a similar criminal law with similar independent institutions for medical fraud.

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