Academics received $55 million to serve on health care company boards in 2013

By Carolyn Johnson

Signing up for coverage is one thing. Paying for it is another. (Flickr/CC)

(Courtesy of Flickr user 401(K) 2012 under a Creative Commons license.)

Craig B. Thompson leads one of the country’s most prestigious cancer hospitals, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. But noticeably absent from his online biographical sketch is his position as a director of one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, Merck, where over the past four years, he’s received more than $1 million to serve on a board charged with the mission “to represent and protect the interests of the Company’s shareholders.”

A new study shows Thompson is far from alone. Nearly one of every 10 board positions at health care companies were held by an academic-affiliated person, ranging from medical school deans to hospital heads to professors, according to an analysis of 2013 data published in the British Medical Journal Tuesday.

In an age where even relatively small, one-time payments from pharmaceutical companies to doctors have come under intense scrutiny because they may skew prescribing practices or research, the study reveals that some of the most well-paid and influential leaders in medicine are sitting on the boards of publicly traded health-care companies, where they are richly compensated.

“These people who are on boards are among the most famous, the most sought-after academics in the country. At the same time they are making very large incomes, based on their positions, so what they’re doing is simply padding their incomes, with a lot of extra money,” said Jerome Kassirer, editor-in-chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine. “I think it’s a bad idea, and I think it’s widespread.”

For years, it’s been known that academics served on drug company boards, but the new study chronicled just how prevalent and remunerative these relationships are throughout the health care industry. The board members received $193,000, on …read more