Friday, July 3, 2015

Lancet Psychiatry's Inconsistent Look At Conflict Of Interest

The opening paragraphs of this editorial piece seemed promising, especially these lines:

It's not just about the money. In mental health, reputational interests exist alongside potential financial conflicts. There might also be deep-rooted interests based on professional identity. Our specialty sometimes resembles a field of conflict, or maybe some particularly ill-tempered football league—psychiatrists versus psychiatrists, psychiatrists versus psychologists, behavioural psychologists versus psychoanalysts, pill pushers versus therapists, and, as a forthcoming attraction, ICD versus DSM—a world of factionalism, rifts, ideology, personal philosophy, and ego (or should that be id?). (ref 1)

Unfortunately things rapidly fell apart after that point.  The above statements capture much of the position I have advocated on this blog from day one.  Anyone who is not aware of the purely political factors affecting some of the conflicts outlined in these sentences is extremely naive.  If anyone needs a more extensive scorecard, please refer to the graphic at this link.  On the other hand, the problem may be that I have a restrictive view of what the authors here refer to as "our specialty".  They seem to include a lot of other people than just psychiatrists.  Midwestern psychiatry may be a different culture than the rest of psychiatry.  I think we tend to view ourselves as physicians first and then psychiatrists.  We may be more comfortable talking with medical and surgical colleagues and medical knowledge is valued rather than denigrated.  We don't claim medical knowledge for the political advantage of seeming to be like other doctors.  We know a lot of medicine because we treat a lot of people with psychiatric and medical problems and consult in acute care settings.  Some of the conferences I see advertised and a few I have attended suggest to me that there are psychiatrists out there who do not have that interest in all things medical and neurological and may be more comfortable talking with non-physicians.   When I think about "our specialty",  I am thinking about those hundreds of medically oriented psychiatrists who I know who want to talk about taking care of people with severe illnesses.  People who are comfortable in hospitals and medical clinics.  People who know about the brain, labs, brain imaging, EEGs, and all things medical.

You might think that this is just another "faction" of a fractionated specialty, but it has been surprisingly seamless to me.  I trained in three major University settings in their core hospitals and affiliated Veteran's Hospitals.   When I got out, I practiced in community hospitals and clinics before coming back to a University affiliated tertiary care center.  The knowledge base of what needed to be diagnosed and treated was uniform across all of those settings.  I could expect highly competent psychiatrists available in those settings to consult with and for cross coverage.  The focus was always excellent clinical care and avoiding mistakes.  It did not resemble the confederacy of dunces described in this editorial and frequently in the popular press.  The practical issue is that practicing in acute care settings focuses the type of care that needs to be delivered.  People need to get better, and they need to get better in a hurry.   All of the debates wash out in the bright light of pragmatism.  If your plan cannot be enacted and result in clear improvements, you don't last long in that environment.  The potential complications alone will make you look bad.  The results of a clinical trial of a medication in completely healthy adults is irrelevant.

Turning the management of the world's most expensive health care system over to a for-profit industry capable of skimming hundreds of billions of dollars off the top for what amounts to a rationing scheme is a uniquely American solution, so I would not expect a lot of recognition in a British journal.  Medical journals make it seem like we are all practicing the same brand of medicine independent of cultural and political constraints.  I doubt that the editors in these situations will prove any more savvy than American editors who seem to ignore the fact that, managed care and everything that involves dwarfs the pharmaceutical industry in terms of conflicts of interest affecting the care of patients at least in the United States and that pro-managed care articles deserve at least as much scrutiny as papers written about pharmaceuticals.

The authors use about 1/3 of their space to criticize Rosenbaum's New England Journal of Medicine series on conflict of interest and the term pharmascolds.  They get one point correct, good research should not be ignored irrespective of who is funding it.  Like other critics of Rosenbaum, they wax rhetorical in their criticism and side step the numerous valid points that she makes.  They suggest that they should be focusing on a larger number of conflicts of interests ranging from the potential financial gains from various non-pharmacological innovations to "professional vendettas" but provide very little insight into how that might occur other than continuing to "question, query, probe, and interrogate" beyond the usual financial conflict disclosure.

On that procedure, I will say good luck to them and editors everywhere.  The Institute of Medicine inspired approach (2) of considering the appearance of conflict of interest and conflict of interest to be equivalent and unevenly applying that to one industry while completely ignoring the insidious effects of another has done very little to  "strike the right balance between addressing egregious cases and creating burdens that stifle relationships that advance the goals of professionalism and generate knowledge to benefit society."

There is no better example than a health care system that systematically discriminates against mental illness and addiction and does that on the basis of questionable research based on business rather than scientific principles.  The editors could start to expand their probing to spreadsheet research that looks at the purported "cost effectiveness" of managed care or collaborative care and question any associated reported quality measures.  It is always amazing how new research compares a relatively trivial case management intervention to "care as usual", when that terrible care was the product of early research on how care can be rationed.   A good starting point might be a requirement analogous to "refusing to publish non-research articles on depression from authors who have received unrelated funding from pharmaceutical companies that market antidepressant." by refusing to publish opinion pieces from opinion leaders in the business of rationing mental health services.  Refusing to publish research articles that compare rationed to less slightly rationed care would be another.

If medical research is really supposed to be generating knowledge that benefits society, where are the state-of-the-art models for psychiatric care that can set this standard?  That is what editors everywhere should be looking for.  

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Conflict Resolution.  The Lancet Psychiatry 2015, Volume 2, No. 7, p571, July 2015

2:  IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2009. Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


  1. Considering Lancet's recent series of published agenda-motivated fabrications, they ought to look in the mirror first.

    1. If you have time - I would be interested in your take on their agenda-motivated fabrications. From what I recall they seem to have the usual tendency to blame psychiatrists for whatever people perceive is the most recent problems with monolithic psychiatry. That is an endless exercise.

  2. A fabricated Lancet about MMR was the original sin in the antivaxxer movement:

    First do no harm applies to journal editors too.