Leaders of many U.S. academic medical centers sit on the boards of some of the world's biggest drug companies, which a study suggests raises the potential for worrisome conflicts of interest.
Industry board members oversee company decision-making and have a financial responsibility to company shareholders, the study authors note. Those duties could potentially compromise decisions medical center leaders make that affect patient care, education or research, they suggest.
In 2012, they found that 16 of the 17 largest U.S. pharmaceutical companies had at least one board member who also held leadership positions at one of some 30 academic medical centers. The leaders include CEOs, medical school deans, hospital directors or trustees and clinical department chiefs.
Annual compensation ranged from almost $107,000 to over $500,000. The study didn't address if the money went to the board member or their institution.
The researchers didn't call for a ban on these relationships but suggests that medical center leaders could serve on boards but not as voting members.
These board ties could be potentially worthwhile for both sides and their institutions' goals, including helping universities find out about industry funding available for research, said Dr. Walid Gellad, the study's senior author and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
"But the ties may also open the door to additional industry influence over important medical center or university decision-making, and may negatively influence the perceptions and trust of patients, students and the public," said Gellad. "These risks have to be considered alongside any potential benefits."
The study was published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The authors collected data from company websites, proxy statements and shareholder reports, and from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's public database.
The study doesn't identify individual leaders but lists institutions that include some of the nation's most prestigious centers, including Harvard University, Yale's medical school, UCLA and Northwestern University.
Academic medical centers and universities often have conflict of interest policies.
Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said policy rules "reduce the potential for real or perceived bias in our research activities, clinical decision-making, and educational programs."
Northwestern medical school leaders including trustees often sit on industry boards but "are required annually to disclose any potential conflicts of interest," said spokesman Alan Cubbage.
"We take seriously the importance of objectivity in research, education and patient care, as well as in our governance activities," he said in a statement.
Ann Bonham, chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said the study raises important issues for the public to know about, but that compensation for service on an industry board should be viewed in the context of the entire scope of these relationships.
"Research breakthroughs result from principled partnerships between scientists in academic medicine and industry, and our hope would be that remuneration for an institutional leader sitting on a board does not halt this progress," Bonham said.
Companies mentioned in the report as having board members from academic medical centers include Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
Pfizer spokeswoman Joan Campion said the board members' "knowledge of the crucial role of research in drug discovery and development and deep understanding of science and medicine are invaluable in our quest to deliver innovative therapies to patients."
She said they are required to "recuse themselves should any conflict of interest arise between them and the company."
J&J spokesman Ernie Knewitz said including academic medical leaders on the board is only natural, given the company's aim "to develop and bring to market innovative products for patients that further human health." But he denied that board members are "'somehow beholden'" to the company.