Thoughts on Charles Nemeroff's Not So Excellent Adventure

The saga of Dr Charles Nemeroff was most recently discussed on Health Care Renewal here. We had first posted about his failure to disclose relevant conflicts of interest relating an article he wrote for a journal he also edited here. Other posts about Nemeroff's questionable behavior are here, here. Nemeroff has also starred in numerous posts on the Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry Blog, amongst others.

Now the tale of how Nemeroff raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars as a paid speaker on behalf of drug marketers, and denied these earnings while he ran a US government funded project meant to evaluate some of the products of his commercial sponsors, has splashed across major newspapers. There has been a lot of good discussion about the case in the blogsphere. (We await, of course, discussion in scholarly medical and health care journals, if it ever appears.)

I did think it was worth weighing in again just to underline some important points about this affair.

It has become common for academic leaders to earn more hawking commercial products than from teaching, research, or patient care. The database unearthed by Senator Grassley just of the speaking fees earned by Dr Nemeroff giving speeches promoting GlaxoSmithKline products is breath-taking. As noted by the anonymous blogger on the Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry Blog, Nemeroff was earning on average more than $20K a month from GlaxoSmithKline alone. That was from only one company. As that blogger also noted, Nemeroff at one point was a consultant for 18 companies, if I counted right, and gave paid talks for 4. Here is the actual relevant part of the disclosure statement.

[Nemeroff] has been a consultant to Abbott Laboratories, Acadia Pharmaceuticals, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Corcept Therapeutics, Cypress Bioscience, Cyberonics, Eli Lilly and Co, Entrepreneur’s Fund, Forest Laboratories, Inc, GlaxoSmithKline, i3 DLN, Janssen Pharmaceutica, Lundbeck, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Quintiles Transnational, UCB Pharma, and Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories; has been on the speakers bureau for Abbott Laboratories, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceutica, and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals;

At most medical schools, bringing in money is more important than academic integrity, or anything else. We have previously posted about how one medical school leader explained that faculty who are "taxpayers," that is, bringers of money, are more valued than all others.

The case of Nemeroff shows how big-time taxpayers are now above the law at medical schools. As Dr Howard Brody explained it on the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma Blog

[Nemeroff] sent a confidential letter to the dean of the medical school at Emory in May 2000, listing the dozen corporate advisory boards in which he sat. He then ticked off the grants and endowments that those firms had paid to the Department of Psychiatry at Emory, and added, 'Part of the rationale for [the companies'] funding our faculty in such a manner would be my service on those boards.' Translation--you mess with my cozy relationships with these companies, and the industry gravy train to Emory dries up. The threat is only slightly veiled, that should Emory decide to take any serious action against Nemeroff for his unreported conflicts of interest, he could easily jump ship to a more permissive med school, taking a lot of his captive research faculty and all of his industry funding with him.

Lying is an acceptable way to maintain an academic medical leadership position. Senator Grassley's letter to Emory documented this instance:

On several occasions during the life of this grant, it appears that Dr. Nemeroff
failed to report to Emory that he was participating actively on the speaker’s bureau for GSK. For instance, in an email regarding his outside activities dated October 1, 2003, Dr. Nemeroff wrote:
'…I have to dig up the agreement and send it to you, GSK no standing
contract, I chair their ad board 2-3 times per year and I am paid per board
meeting at a standard rate of $5K per weekend
However, and based upon information in our possession, in 2003 GSK
paid Dr. Nemeroff about $119,000 in speaking fees and expenses

$15,000 does not remotely equal $119,000. Stating he was paid the former when he was paid the latter goes beyond "misspeaking."

Bullying helps too. As Dr Brody put it,

Nemeroff is pleased to bear the nickname 'Boss of Bosses.' He has a reputation for wielding tremendous power in psychiatry, especially taking advantage of his leverage with the big drug firms, and is ruthless in attacking those whom he doesn't like or who threaten him. One such event is described in some detail in HOOKED, the hiring and then subsequent firing of David Healy as head of a psychiatric research institute at the University of Toronto, due to Healy saying bad things about Prozac, whose manufacturer, Eli Lilly, was at the time considering a major grant to Toronto. Healy cheerfully sued Toronto and won, meaning that all the correspondence related to the firing is now in the public domain. In HOOKED I focused on Toronto's spineless behavior, but it is also interesting to note that almost certainly, Nemeroff was in the background pulling all the strings that led to Healy's dismissal.

Not only was this a case of bullying, of course, but it was also a case of the trampling of academic freedom, in this case, apparently to support the continuing relationship between pharmaceutical companies, "key opinion leaders," and medical schools, so profitable to these parties, but so detrimental to the integrity of academic medicine and of the clinical research data base.

The case of Charles Nemeroff's not so excellent adventure illustrates the sorry current state of the leadership of academic medicine. As Dr Brody put it,

In today's world, a medical school like Emory looks at all the pluses and minuses of having a guy like Nemeroff as a powerful chair, and decides that the pluses outweigh the minuses. His publication record is stellar (mostly ghostwritten of course), he brings in huge research grants, and people in his specialty all over the world want to kiss the hem of his garments. What has to change, in the regulation and the culture of the academic medical center, so that it becomes a no-brainer that having a guy like this on your faculty is a net loser?

Without such change, the public will fairly start to judge academic medicine's integrity as only slightly better than that of the garbage hauling industry, and that may be too insulting to the garbage hauling industry. It is sad beyond words that the current leadership of these once proud institutions have lead them to this pass, just for a few dollars more.

ADDENDUM (8 October, 2008) - See also comments by Dr Daniel Carlat on the Carlat Psychiatry blog here and here, and by Alison Bass on the Alison Bass blog here.

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