A study of the boards of directors of pharmaceutical companies has found that around 40% include at least one member who holds a leadership position at an academic medical centre (AMC), and the authors suggest that these relationships present “potentially far-reaching consequences.”

While financial relationships between the pharmaceutical industry and physicians have recently come under increased scrutiny, less attention has been paid to relationships between industry and the leadership of AMCs, who wield considerable influence over research, clinical and educational missions, according to background information in the article, which is published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“When AMC leaders serve on pharmaceutical company boards, they hold a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders to promote the financial success of the company, which may conflict or compete with institutional oversight responsibilities and individual clinical and research practices,” it adds.

The study, led by Dr Timothy Anderson of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, examined how often AMC leaders served on the boards of directors for pharmaceutical companies, using data collected in January 2013. This reveals that, of the 50 largest pharmaceutical companies in terms of global sales, 40%, or 19 out of 47 (three of the 50 companies examined lacked public data on governance) included at least one board member who also held a leadership position at an AMC. Among these were 16 out of 17 (or 94%) of US pharmaceutical companies, it adds. 

In 2012, 41 board members of pharmaceutical companies were holders of AMC leadership positions, and they received an average financial compensation for board membership of $312,564, the research shows. And 18 industry board members – or 3% of all members of boards – held 21 clinical or administrative leadership positions; these included two university presidents, six deans, six hospital or health system executive officers and seven clinical department chairs or centre directors, the study adds.

Commenting on the findings, the report’s authors say that they “do not make any conclusions about whether specifically identified relationships led to actual, rather than potential, conflicts of interest.”

However, they add that, “given the magnitude of competing priorities between academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies, dual leadership roles cannot simply be managed by internal disclosure. These relationships present potentially far-reaching consequences beyond those created when individual physicians consult with industry or receive gifts.”