July 5, 2022

Harvard psychiatrists under attack over consulting fees

Paperwork problems raise fears of undue influence

Three prominent Harvard psychiatrists are under attack in the US Congress for failing to lodge accurate statements of their consulting fees from drug companies. Pressure applied by Senator Chuck Grassley, chair of the powerful finance committee, brought to light that they may have violated federal and university research rules on conflicts of interest. One of the psychiatrists, Dr. Joseph Biederman, has been extremely influential in fuelling an explosion in the use of powerful anti-psychotic medicines in children. It turns out that he received least US$1.6 million in consulting fees from pharmaceutical manufacturers from 2000 to 2007 but did not report much of this income to university officials. Two of his colleagues, Dr. Timothy E. Wilens, and Dr. Thomas Spencer, earned similar sums.

Dr. Biederman told the New York Times that “My interests are solely in the advancement of medical treatment through rigorous and objective study,” and he said he took conflict-of-interest policies “very seriously.” Wilens and Spencer said that they thought that they had complied with the rules.

Universities ask professors to report income from consulting with drug companies but they find it hard to police this. “It’s really been an honour system thing,” said Dr. Robert Alpern, dean of Yale School of Medicine. “If somebody tells us that a pharmaceutical company pays them $80,000 a year, I don’t even know how to check on that.”

The scandal is not just about financial reporting, but also about research integrity. The Harvard group has been responsible for soaring diagnoses of paediatric bipolar disorder in children. About 500,000 children and teenagers were given at least one prescription for an anti-psychotic in 2007, including 20,500 under 6 years of age, according to the Times. The group’s critics are scathing: “They have given the Harvard imprimatur to this commercial experimentation on children,” said Vera Sharav, president and founder of the Alliance for Human Research Protection. ~ New York Times, June 8