Author + information
- Steven E. Nissen, MD, FACC⁎,
- President, American College of Cardiology
- ↵⁎Address correspondence to:
Dr. Steven E. Nissen, American College of Cardiology, c/o Cathy Lora, 9111 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-1699.
It is my distinct pleasure to welcome you into fellowship in the American College of Cardiology (ACC). You have achieved an important career milestone, an honor that will bring you respect and admiration from your colleagues, patients, and society. However, it is also an achievement that brings great responsibility and ethical burdens that will demand constant vigilance.
The initials F.A.C.C. are something money cannot buy. They stand for high ideals. As Fellows of the ACC, we owe a great debt to those ideals. The precise nature of that debt is a matter of history and circumstance.
Our obligation is clear: We need to remove the biases that stand in the way of good medicine and sound research. We need to assure that no consideration of economic self-interest will ever prevent us from giving our patients the safest, most effective, and most economically responsible health care possible.
Health care is expensive. It is a Hummer-sized piece of the economy. During your lifetime, it will probably exceed a full one-fourth of the gross national product (1). One reason it is so expensive is because it works. Cardiac care has led the way in extending our life span and, more importantly, improving the quality of life. But the returns may be diminishing.
For example, the obesity-diabetes epidemic is upon us. This epidemic is literally fed by our fast-food culture. It is endemic among the poor, who are also the most likely to smoke and least likely to have health care insurance.
We debate about how to handle the uninsured poor. We are a democracy. We tolerate many points of view, but we should not tolerate death by poverty. We all know hypertension is highly treatable with drugs. It is not treatable, however, if you do not have $100 a month to spend on antihypertensive drugs.
Many pharmaceutical companies have commendable programs to help the poor (2), but it is a patchwork effort. There is no substitute for a systematic solution that involves all sectors of the health care economy.
We need a better government safety net. We are wealthy and aspire to be a humanistic culture. Posterity will measure our character by how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. No one should have to choose between food and health care.
We are looking at an avalanche of heart disease in the coming years. It is linked to another issue about which I feel strongly: racial disparity in disease outcomes.
In 2000, the death rate from heart disease was almost 30% greater among African-American adults than Caucasians. Death rates from stroke were 40% higher (3). Our research priorities should be aligned to address the staggering disparity. We need to amplify our emphasis on prevention and screening for this population.
Government is moving slowly on these issues. I recently spoke to an exiled physician from the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. He said that nearly 50% of his practice was unable to pay him. This dedicated doctor is doing more than his share. But who should be responsible for solving this problem—a few extraordinary individuals willing to make great personal sacrifices for health care equality, or a wealthy society that more uniformly spreads the burden?
So, here are the pivotal questions. What role should the ACC play in this debate? Should our advocacy efforts focus solely on protecting our economic self-interest, or should we apply some of our intellectual and financial capital to the national discussion of these formidable problems?
As cardiologists we are part of the problem, but we are also part of the solution.
Can we do more with less? Technology is playing havoc with health costs. We pay more because we can do more. In the case of new imaging technologies, we pay more because we can seemore. Is what we see worth looking at?
New imaging modalities provide a clearer picture of the heart and vascular system than ever before. But what may be useful and beneficial is still evolving. Our infatuation with technology can be wonderful, but it is costly and must be used appropriately.
I share the enthusiasm for emerging technologies like cardiac computed tomography. At the same time, our enthusiasm must be tempered by judgment. The history of medicine is replete with examples of new technologies that have been rushed into practice without the evidence needed to use them wisely.
How do we answer the question of appropriate use? The College has begun development of guidelines for appropriate use (4). These guidelines represent the collective wisdom of our specialty. We will do well to consult them in making our clinical choices.
There are many victories ahead for cardiology. But we need to prepare for them. The first step is to look to our professional integrity.
Trust is priceless equity. It defines the relationship between the doctor and the patient. It can be protected and nurtured and passed on to future generations. Or it can be squandered.
I am concerned that our public trust is endangered. We are too entangled with pharmaceutical suppliers. We need to take additional steps to secure our integrity. In health care, where so much is at stake, even the appearance of bias can damage trust as much as actual impropriety.
Just as our country is addicted to oil, our profession is addicted to the financial support of drug and device manufacturers.
Please do not misunderstand me. The most important advances in medical practice have come from the willingness of industry to invest billions of dollars in new medicines and innovative cardiovascular devices. Without industry, there would be no statin drugs, no drug-eluting stents, and no implantable cardioverter-defibrillators.
The philanthropy of our industry partners has helped us achieve many of the most important accomplishments of our College. But this system has become out of balance.
Industry is now the dominant source of funding for medical education (5–7). In most hospitals, grand rounds and educational seminars are almost exclusively funded by industry. Our professional journals rely on advertising to pay the bills, and our national meetings are partially funded by massive industry exhibitions.
The College currently works diligently to meet—or exceed—accepted best practices to make certain that this funding does not come with strings attached (8,9). We need the strongest possible firewalls between the educational content of our programs and the sources of funding.
The College is leading the way in identifying and containing these potential conflicts, but we must never let our guard down.
There is nothing more valuable than our scientific integrity. The most important evidence used to support our practice guidelines arises from clinical trials. With the current focus of the National Institutes of Health on basic research, contemporary clinical trials are now almost exclusively funded by industry. There are so many of them that we are running out of acronyms.
Some industry-funded trials are independently directed by academic investigators, but most are not. An entirely new industry has sprouted during the past 25 years—contract research organizations. These for-profit research companies are well-equipped to run large clinical trials on behalf of pharmaceutical or device companies.
Unfortunately, however, they are accountable only to the sponsor, not the physician-scientists who enroll patients in clinical trials, nor to the patients who volunteer to participate.
This trend threatens the integrity of the most important source of evidence used to advance medical practice. The design of trials administered by non-academic organizations may subtly or not-so-subtly favor the therapy being investigated.
If results are unfavorable, the results are simply not published, a phenomenon known as negative publication bias. The failure to publish negative results has an unquestionably harmful effect on medical science. We are unwittingly barred from learning from these failed experiments and, therefore, are likely to repeat such failures.
Regrettably, I must also tell you that some of the most important clinical trial manuscripts are ghost-written by communications companies, not the investigators. Agreeing to serve as an author of such a study is a betrayal of professional and public trust. Without academic authors willing to accept such practices, ghost-writing would not be possible.
I am currently leading a large clinical trial financed by a major drug company. No representative of the company sits on the executive committee. No academic participant may accept honoraria, speaking fees, or other compensation from any manufacturer of drugs in this class. At the trial’s conclusion, we intend to provide the study database to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute so that independent investigators can explore the results. This will not only be one of the largest clinical trials ever conducted, but one of the most transparent.
Several academic research groups are leading the way to improve the research environment. Particularly notable are the Duke Clinical Research Institute and the Thrombolysis In Myocardial Infarction Group at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Similar to the Cleveland Clinic Cardiovascular Coordinating Center, these fine research institutes require unrestricted access to the trial database and unlimited rights to publish the results.
Several leading journals have also taken up the integrity issue, most notably our own Journal of the American College of Cardiologyand Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which require statistical confirmation of clinical trial results by external academic sources for all industry-sponsored studies (10).
Individual practitioners also must share responsibility. We should be pleased to participate in industry-sponsored clinical trials, but the investigators must control the trial data and be completely free to publish it when and where they want. This may cost us some personal opportunities, but it is worth it. Our integrity has no price.
Big trials receive public scrutiny, but professional societies are private affairs. Clinical practice guidelines are developed by committees behind closed doors. Our guidelines should represent the mean of evidence, experience, and judgment of the most qualified specialists in their field. They need to be forged in the crucible of science, not commerce.
In 2002, a JAMAstudy examined committees that established guidelines endorsed for common adult diseases. It found that 80% of authors of guidelines had some form of interaction with the pharmaceutical industry (11).
I do not for a moment suggest that the guidelines of the ACC reflect commercial bias, but we need to assure that they never will. Or never even appear to. How can this be accomplished? The first step is to make it clear that we are aware of the potential for bias or conflict of interest.
The ACC, again, is leading the way in establishing the highest principles of integrity and transparency in matters of professional ethics. As individuals, we also need to draw clear lines around the pharmaceutical industry relationship (12,13).
I offer you my personal solution. I donate any drug-industry consulting fees offered to me to a philanthropic charity run by the College. No income, no tax deduction. Please consider this course of action for yourselves. You will sleep better at night, and your favorite charity will be grateful for the support.
As president, I will solicit opinions on these critical matters. It is my hope that we can reach a consensus that reflects the pure love of science and medicine that is the hallmark of our organization.
We are a privileged group. With that privilege, comes great responsibility. I have fought for justice and equality all my life. If there is an elite out there, I am usually against it, but the ACC represents an elite in the very best sense of the word.
You are the shining faces of our profession. You are the advocates, speakers, volunteers, researchers, teachers, presenters, authors, healers, and leaders. You are the operators, surgeons, practitioners, and clinicians that all others look to for example.
I urge you to use your great skills with common humanity, and share them with every patient, regardless of life status.
You have joined a great network of ACC fellows. We are here to help you with information and experience. The College will be your partner throughout your career, to support your practice, and to challenge you to be the best cardiologist you can be.
I welcome you to fellowship in this best of all elites, and wish you the most rewarding and fulfilling careers.
- American College of Cardiology Foundation
- ↵Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary. National Health Care Expenditures Projections: 2005–2015 Forecast Summary. Available at: http://www.cms.hhs.gov/NationalHealthExpendData/downloads/proj2005.pdf. Accessed March 10, 2006.
- ↵Srinivas KR. The World’s Poor and Sick Have Not Been Forgotten. Yale Global Online. Available at: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/index.jsp. Accessed March 9, 2006.
- ↵National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Health, United States, 2002, Table 30. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/. Accessed March 10, 2006.
- ↵American College of Cardiology. Clinical Statements/Guidelines: Appropriateness Criteria. Available at: http://www.acc.org/clinical/topic/topic.htm#appropriateness_criteria. Accessed March 10, 2006.
- ↵Environmental Assessment: Office of Research, Planning and Evaluation. Industry Support of CME American College of Physicians. Available at: http://ea.acponline.org/systems/ISO.html. Accessed March 10, 2006.
- Lexchin J.R.
- ↵JAMA Information for Authors and Reviewers Clinical Trial Registration. Available at: http://jama.ama-assn.org/misc/authors.dtl#clinicaltrial. Accessed March 10, 2006.
- Chimonas S.,
- Rothman D.J.