Galveston County Daily News, Sept. 25, 2006

Guest viewpoint by UTMB medical student Neisha Ann D'Souza:

Last Sunday, Heber Taylor discussed Stanford University’s decision to prohibit physicians who work in its hospitals from accepting any gifts from representatives of pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Citing an “erosion of public trust in medicine due to drug companies’ influence,” Taylor encouraged a lively debate on this issue at UTMB.

As a medical student, I’d like to thank Taylor for that column and assure him and the people of Galveston that this debate has already begun at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Last month, one winner in a competition sponsored by the UTMB President’s Office and the John P. McGovern Academy of Oslerian Medicine (www.utmb. edu/osler/Default.htm) was a project proposed by the student-led Pharmaceutical Awareness Group exploring the relationship between health care providers and the pharmaceutical industry.

We proposed this initiative because we feel that the industry compromises trust — not only for the public — but also among medical students.

As we train in the basic sciences, we simultaneously learn to practice medicine as professionals. In the Practice of Medicine segment of our curriculum, we learn to put the interests of the patient above the physician’s own interests.

Why should physicians, medical students and the public focus on the influence of the drug companies? Simply put, because their practices may interfere with physicians’ responsibilities to act in the best interest of patients.

In many clinical settings at UTMB, pharmaceutical representatives disseminate information about drugs to physicians. In exchange for access, they offer gifts such as lunches, pens, medical equipment, drug samples and much more.

While many physicians imagine themselves uninfluenced by these offerings, research suggests that physicians who receive such blandishments are far more likely to prescribe the drugs marketed to them than to recommend comparable drugs.

Turning down a proffered pen or meal may seem easy, but what about free drug samples?

Doctors give many patients who can’t afford prescriptions these samples. Such practices are so endemic that conflicts and confusion seem unavoidable.

To raise awareness of possible conflicts of interest, five UTMB medical students decided last January to form the Pharmaceutical Awareness Group through which we hope to reinforce UTMB’s commitment to professionalism.

With the support of the UTMB faculty and a $5,000 grant from the UTMB administration, PAG will help students research the issues so that they may consider possible conflicts of interest more objectively. Our meetings will address specific topics in various formats; most importantly, we seek the open exchange of ideas.

As medical students, we prepare to integrate our responsibility to patients with the realities we will face as professionals. The values and ideals formed now will shape our practices throughout our careers.

UTMB stresses professionalism and quality care for patients. These principles should guide our scrutiny of the practices of the pharmaceutical industry.

Early in 2007, PAG will host an evening seminar open to the public. We hope many interested Galvestonians will join us.