Putting the Interests of Patients First: Conference Endorses Science-Focused Health Care

February 20, 2013 | 10:50 am
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

It’s not often that some of the best and most creative minds in medicine, medical ethics and healthcare all gather in one place. It’s even more rare when all these individuals are gathered together to focus on one problem—undue corporate influence on the treatment of patients in the U.S.  “Selling Sickness 2013: People Before Profits” may sound populist, but it is grounded in science. The conference speakers are seasoned professionals whose parent institutions include Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the George Washington School of Medicine. Their expertise is augmented by journalists, health policy experts with ties to some of the nation’s largest foundations, and the heads of respected consumer groups, including Consumers Union.

UCS has a long history of working to hold the FDA accountable through various means including the survey pictured above from 2011.

The conference, taking place in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 21 and 22, will explore how science, which should be the foundation for our treatment of illness, often is sabotaged by drug and device companies looking for more customers.

The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists is a sponsor of the conference, and I am honored to be participating in two panels. This engagement has grown out of our long efforts advocating for more accountability and transparency at the Food and Drug Administration.

Senior Scientist Francesca Grifo pioneered this effort, and UCS soon was hearing from FDA whistleblowers who had been ignored by their agency when they raised concerns about a variety of drugs—including the antibiotic Ketek and the painkiller Vioxx—that the agency ultimately found unsafe.

For nearly a decade, UCS has had its finger on the pulse of FDA scientists, surveying them in 2006 and again in 2011, tracking their concerns about corporate and political influence on their safety mission and their freedom to do their work without fear of reprisal. While overall, things have improved at the FDA, in 2011 a concerning number of scientists continued to experience undue political and corporate influence on the agency’s work.

A core goal for UCS has been to continue working to limit the political and corporate influence at the FDA.

Our work with scientists led to our efforts to address the problem of conflicts of interest at the FDA. We have pressed FDA officials to make greater efforts to recruit members of FDA advisory panels without financial ties to the very companies whose products those panels will assess. Indeed, last year, we reached out to our scientist network and asked those experts in medicine and public health to apply to serve on these panels. We were gratified when 61 of our UCS members stepped forward and applied to fill vacancies on these committees.

Our new Center is about both science and democracy. That’s why our efforts to reform the FDA and to educate citizens through our participation in the Selling Sickness conference are central to what we do. We are working to strengthen our democracy by educating both citizens and policymakers about the role of science in improving the health, security and prosperity of us all.