Sunshine Through an Undefined Prism

It’s widely accepted that the Physician Payment Sunshine rules, the final version of which was recently released by the Administration, are a good thing.  When physicians have working agreements with pharmaceutical or medical device companies, patients and consumers should know that these collaborations are taking place.

But will they know enough about what these agreements entail or, asked more specifically, will citizens simply see columns full of dollar figures when the Sunshine website goes live in 2014 or will they be given an understanding of what these collaborations mean for quality health care, medical research and the improvement of our healthcare system?

Two highly-respected physicians, Dr. David Barrett, former CEO of the Lahey Clinic, and Dr. Harry Jacobson, vice chancellor emeritus of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, addressed this issue in an op-ed last week in The Hill newspaper.  They wrote, “The working relationships between doctors and healthcare companies have come under fire, and these frequently-unfounded criticisms may deter many of our country’s finest medical minds from participating in the innovation process. This would be a catastrophic trend for current and future patients.”

Drs. Barrett and Jacobson are exactly right.  Many of the most significant medical innovations of the last several decades – from penicillin to pacemakers to cervical discs – have come as a result of collaboration between physicians and innovative companies.  If these collaborations become increasingly rare because physicians and researchers don’t want the negative implications that accompany reports of contractual agreements, then patients and our healthcare system pay the price.

Everyone has a responsibility to make sure this is done right.  Leading healthcare providers, health industry companies and associations, academic health centers and patient groups are doing their share by endorsing a set of principles – initiated by the Healthcare Leadership Council’s National Dialogue for Healthcare Innovation – calling for transparency, researcher independence and accountability in all collaborative ventures.

And, at the same time, policymakers and the news media need to avoid giving the impression that exchanges of value between physicians and industry are, by definition, nefarious in nature.  As Drs. Barrett and Jacobson wrote, “We have seldom, if ever, read a news story in which it was fully explained how physician-industry collaboration led to a new medical breakthrough.  The focus is almost exclusively on the money.”

The public deserves better.  Yes, it’s essential to let the sunshine in, but it’s equally critical that the whole picture of physician-industry collaboration be illuminated so the public understands its value.