Memorial Sloan Kettering angers stakeholders with tepid crisis response

The leading cancer hospital is embroiled in controversy after a leading doctor failed to disclose millions in incentives from drug companies. Can the oncology center win back patients’ trust?

MSK crisis response

Consumer trust is important in any industry. In health care, it’s essential.

Scandal has rocked Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the nation’s leading oncology facilities, shredding that trust. Its chief medical officer failed to disclose millions of dollars in incentives and kickbacks he had received from pharmaceutical companies.

ProPublica reported:

The researcher, Dr. José Baselga, a towering figure in the cancer world, is the chief medical officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He has held board memberships or advisory roles with Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb, among other corporations; has had a stake in start-ups testing cancer therapies; and played a key role in the development of breakthrough drugs that have revolutionized treatments for breast cancer.

According to an analysis by ProPublica and The New York Times, Baselga did not follow financial disclosure rules set by the American Association for Cancer Research when he was president of the group. He also left out payments he received from companies connected to cancer research in his articles published in the group’s journal, Cancer Discovery. At the same time, he has been one of the journal’s two editors in chief.

The disclosure creates a problem for patients who are left to wonder whether their course of treatment is influenced by a backroom deal with a drug company.

Steven Petrow, a former patient and now a volunteer for the hospital, has shared his dismay over how leaders have handled the crisis.

He writes:

I trusted Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and believed in it. For more than 30 years, my family and I have literally put our lives in its hands. But it has betrayed my trust and that of many other patients and their families.

Leaders have attempted to address financial disclosure within the hospital—and, they hope, salvage its public status. A letter was sent to MSK employees and stakeholders, reading in part:

The issues surrounding author disclosures are complex, as there are nebulous guidelines about when and how to make voluntary disclosures. We believe in supporting academic freedom and the ability of individual researchers to engage in the scientific process, including publication of results. This extends to judgement exercised by individual researchers and their responsibilities as authors with regard to disclosure.

Petrow finds the statement lacking.

With all due respect, I think an institution that can so ably tackle the complexities of cancer ought to be able to master disclosure requirements.

Here’s why these conflicts matter: Patients like me, my mother and sister, and thousands more have literally put our lives on the line when we trust that a treatment protocol is the very best available. A seed of doubt now exists: Could those recommendations be colored by a physician’s extra-curricular financial entanglements?

Disclosure concern has become a rolling crisis for the hospital, with leaders looking to eschew such affiliations and undo the damage.

ProPublica reported:

A vice president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has to turn over to the hospital nearly $1.4 million of a windfall stake in a biotech company, in light of a series of for-profit deals and industry conflicts at the cancer center that has forced it to re-examine its corporate relationships.

The vice president, 

Topics: Crisis Communications

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