Twilight of the Anechoic Effect? - New England Journal of Medicine Article Discusses Previously Taboo Topic of Bad Corporate Health Care Leadership

We have often complained of the anechoic effect, that the issues we discuss on Health Care Renewal often do not seem to be considered topics of polite conversation.  Any discussion that might question the brilliance, integrity, dedication, or selflessness of the leaders of health care organizations seems particularly taboo. 

So a major aim of this blog has been to discuss the numerous publicly available examples of leadership that is ill-informed, uncaring about or hostile to the values of health care professionals, incompetent, self-interested, conflicted, or outright corrupt, and of governance that lacks accountability, transparency, integrity, honesty, or ethics.  We have postulated that such problems with leadership and governance are not only causes, but the major causes of the increasing dysfunction of our health care system.  That discussing these issues is simply not done in many contexts, including academic health care, medical and health care journals, and health policy fora has only accelerated health care dysfunction.

The New England Journal on Punishing Health Care Fraud

Therefore, I note with some surprise that the New England Journal of Medicine just published an article (online first) that implicitly challenged the leadership of some large health care organizations. [Outterson K. Punishing health care fraud - is the GSK settlement sufficient.  N Engl J Med 2012; 367: 1082 - 1085.  Link here.]

The article summarized the record settling legal settlement agreed to by GlaxoSmithKline (see this post).  It noted that the company pleaded guilty to three criminal charges.  It then noted that while this was the largest recent legal settlement by a pharmaceutical company, "it would be a mistake to assume that GSK was an outlier in the global pharmaceutical and medical-device industries. Indeed, many of the major companies have settled with the Department of Justice in recent years."  It included a table of the largest pharmaceutical company settlements with the US government from 2009 to now.

Based on this background, the article dared to question whether such settlements deter bad behavior:
But questions remain about the efficacy of fines and corporate integrity agreements in deterring corporate misbehavior. The 2012 fines against Abbott Laboratories and GSK represent a modest percentage of those companies' revenue. Companies might well view such fines as merely a cost of doing business — a quite small percentage of their global revenue and often a manageable percentage of the revenue received from the particular product under scrutiny. If so, little has been done to change the system; the government merely recoups a portion of the financial fruit of firms' past misdeeds.

Even more daring was its challenge to top executives of pharmaceutical corporations,
One partial solution would be to impose penalties on corporate executives rather than just the company as a whole. Boston whistleblower attorney Robert M. Thomas, Jr., embraces this approach: 'GSK is a recidivist. How can a company commit a $1 billion crime and no individual is held responsible?'
A Taboo Broken

Having blogged on Health Care Renewal for nearly eight years, I recall very few, if any instances in which leaders of health care organizations were described as deserving punishment, or perhaps even guilty of crimes within large circulation medical journals, and within the New England Journal of Medicine, the most prominent US journal in particular. While discussion of misbehavior within health care organizations has slowly been seeping into the medical and health care literature, delicate phrasing has often been employed that leaves unclear whether top executives have any accountability for this behavior. (For example, while the Lancet editorial on the GSK settlement condemned "GSK's fraud," accused GSK of "actively encouraging off-label prescription," and asserted that "GSK and other drug companies have come adrift from standards of the societies they seek to serve," it never said anything about GSK's leaders or whether they in paticular had anything to do with the company's bad behavior. [Anon. Moral decaly at GSK reaps record US$# billion fine. Lancet 2010; 380: 2. Link here.])

So it is a big step for the NEJM to publish an article that suggests corporate executives might deserve penalties. I hope that this publication might lead to a bit of discussion of these issues within the larger medical and health care communities, the vast majority of whom have likely never heard of this blog and may have never seen anything other than an occasional news article in local media questioning the leadership of large health care organizations.

Things are Even Worse

Unfortunately, I need to end with the observation that the problems are even worse than what the NEJM article implies. Legal settlements of allegations of bad behavior by large health care organizations are much more numerous than those mentioned in this article (look here for examples).

Many of the largest and most prestigious organizations actually have histories of multiple settlements, guilty pleas, and related legal and governmental findings. For example, look here for Pfizer's record, here for Johnson and Johnson's record, here for Abbott's record, and here for Wellpoint's record. Pfizer was even found by a jury to be a racketeering influenced and corrupt organization (RICO)(see post here).

Despite these records of recidivism, no leaders of these companies have paid any individual penalties, and none of these organizations have had any restructuring or leadership changes imposed. This is even more disturbing when this kid-glove treatment of misbehavior by big health care organizations is contrasted with the severe penalties imposed on individuals or leaders of small companies found guilty of health care fraud (look here).

You Heard It Here First

However, in 2003 we first published documentation of individual physicians' concerns that ill-informed, incompetent, self-interested, or even corrupt leadership was threatening their core values [Poses RM. A cautionary tale: the dysfunction of American health care. Eur J Int Med 2003; 14: 123-130. Link here.] Furthermore, since 2008 we have been stating that corporate fines do not deter bad behavior.

It is not that law enforcement does not have the power to seek penalties on individuals. As we noted here, a Supreme Court case from 1943 empowered the government to seek penalties against responsible corporate officers (the "responsible corporate officer doctrine") who were in a position to stop a fraud that resulted in a guilty plea or conviction, particularly for the selling of misbranded or adulterated drugs into interstate commerce under the US Food and Drug Act.  (This was exactly the situation dealt with by the GSK settlement.)  Despite a threat made in 2010 by the chief counsel of the Inspector General's office of the US Department of Health and Human Services to use such legal authority to "get high level executives out of companies," nothing of the sort has happened.

So now that it is no longer taboo to question the pretensions of some leaders of health care organizations to near divine purity, let me state as I did in 2008,
As long as health care leaders can shrug off the consequences of unethical behavior merely as acceptable costs of doing business, absent any serious attempts to get health care organizations to enforce internal codes of ethical behavior or to avoid hiring ethically challenged leaders, the procession will likely continue. The effects will be continually rising costs, declining quality, shrinking access, and rising numbers of demoralized health professionals.
As I wrote in 2009,
Until bad leadership of health care organizations leads to negative consequences for those practicing it, health care leadership can be expected to continuously degrade.