UIHC puts kibosh on freebies

BY ZHANRAN ZHAO | JULY 07, 2009 7:20 AM

Medical-industry conventions typically offer myriad goodies for attendees: dizzying displays of free pens, post-it pads, and doughnuts resting in front of panels of advertisements for new drugs or lab equipment.

Seems innocent enough? Under a new conflict-of-interest policy, they will soon become memories for staff members at the UI Hospitals and Clinic.

The new policy has been in place one week. It requires UIHC staff, faculty, and students to report any gifts they received from outside businesses, such as medical-equipment vendors or drug companies, through an online External Relationships Disclosure Form.

Furthermore, industry exhibitions and private gifts — including travel stipends, special free meals, and product samples — are goners.

“I think people understand the problem,” said Jennifer Niebyl, UI professor of gynecology and obstetrics, who helps enforce the policy.

The goal is to reinforce “the highest possible ethical standards and to foster greater transparency,” said Deborah Thoman, an assistant vice president for compliance and accreditation.

All staff, faculty, and students receiving paychecks from the hospital will need to fill out the disclosure form by Sept. 1. The collected data will be then displayed publicly online, contrary to current guidelines, which keep them confidential.

“Making the disclosure process open is a step to ensure patients can be confident their health-care providers are not influenced by any self-interest,” Thoman said. “Our new, strengthened policy allows faculty and staff to advance teaching, service, and research [while] avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest.”

The UIHC began a review of its conflict-of-interest policy in January, because of growing national attention on several reports of conflicts of interest at other universities, including a case at Stanford involving a researcher who lied about the amount of money he received from companies. While no similar cases have been discovered at UI, officials are confident the new policy will prevent any from happening in the future.

Niebyl said the staff seems to have been supportive so far.

“We have heard very, very few complaints,” she said. “Nobody has [yet] criticized the policy.”

Ji Wan, a graduate research assistant in the internal-medicine department, said he disagrees with one part of the policy: prohibiting displays.

“I don’t think that part will [qualify as] a conflict of interest,” he said. “Because I don’t think those gifts will be given out to individuals.”

The rest makes sense, he said.

“If researchers did not report the money they receive from companies, it will be unfair to the hospital,” Wan said.

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