If Merck tried to, it did a lousy job. Its financial connection to oncologist Maura Gillison, the woman who linked the human papillomavirus with a new type of tonsil cancer, is readily available on the Web. The earliest connection we found goes back to a Forbes story, written in 2009. If Merck tried to keep the connection out of the story, it failed.
There might be an earlier mention, but there’s no date on this disclosure: Dr. Gillison, who also has a PhD, apparently spoke at a webinar for the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. She disclosed that she “receives unrestricted educational grants from Merck and Digene.”
If you haven’t guessed already, this is yet another dust-up over financial disclosure. The Healthcare Channel apparently was all aflutter that Dr. Gillison hadn’t listed Merck as a funding source when she published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010. It notified NEJM; the journal investigated, and it decided that Dr. Gillison HAD NOT violated any of its disclosure rules because the financial arrangement had fallen into a “gray area.”
We don’t know why NEJM let Dr. Gillison slide; but we think this is an example where we need to be careful about the generalizations associated with industry and healthcare practitioners' relationships.
The Healthcare Channel wrote: “The Healthcare Channel has exclusively learned that Dr. Gillison was in fact receiving payments from Merck, going back to 2008 that benefited at the least her laboratory, while she was at Johns Hopkins.” Maybe if its writers had surfed the Web for 15 minutes, they would have found what we found.
This is what the Merck Web page says regarding the information it discloses:
"On March 29, 2011, Merck updated its report on payments to U.S.-based medical and scientific professionals who speak on behalf of Merck about our products and other health care issues. These reports include legacy Merck products prior to the November 2009 merger between Merck and Schering-Plough. The new report covers payments made to speakers for the full year 2010. The report provides data for 2,088 physicians and other health care professionals who, on average, participated in 5.9 programs each and earned an average of $1,659 per program…"
Dr. Gillison is not listed. The presumption: She didn’t speak for Merck during 2010.
We all know there is no uniformity among the current disclosure laws, or among the industry members who are disclosing on Web sites. We’ll all have to wait for 2013 for that to happen.
This is what the Forbes article said about Dr. Gillison and Merck: “Gillison spent three years trying to draw Merck's attention to HPV tonsil cancer. Finally, she is working with Merck to design a study to see if Gardasil can affect HPV infection in the throat. Merck admits studying the problem is ‘challenging’ but says the potential is big.”
Here is a physician who made the connection between HPV, oral sex and a new form of throat cancer. She did the right thing: She worked with industry to try and find a cure. She never hid her connection with industry.
That old expression about throwing the baby out with the bathwater keeps popping into our brains ....