Tom Stossel, MD, the Harvard Medical School professor who took a brave and lonely stand for the value of industry-sponsored CME before a hostile Senate committee in July, seems an unlikely activist. Heck, Stossel laughs, an unlikely doctor.
“I scored with the control gerbils on my math MCATS,” says Stossel, “but I figured out how to do the clinical part well, and I probably would have gone into practice if it hadn't been for the Vietnam War.
Somehow, instead of an Army hospital, he ended up at the NIH, where he launched pioneering research into cell crawling before moving to Harvard, where he practices and teaches hematology. He also moonlighted as a diplomatic diagnostician. In 1976, the State Department shipped him to Moscow to study blood anomalies in embassy staff (he found that the cause was microbial, not radiation, as was feared, and that Soviet life was indeed miserable and oppressive). He was also tapped to treat Algerian leader Houari Boumedienne for a mysterious blood disorder.
In 1987, he joined the scientific advisory board of Biogen, which allowed him to apply some of his research insights. It also gave him a window onto industry ethics.
“These business people were really honest compared to some of my academic colleagues, who'd run their grandmothers over,” he says. “About this time, this outpouring of anti-industry activism began to impose barriers between researcher-industry collaboration, and I got obsessed with it.”
Stossel's clinical practice has deepened his appreciation of industry contributions to care. “Medicine is so incomparably better than when I started, ” says Stossel, “not because it's better regulated but because of the incredible tools they've gotten from industry.”
He began writing op-ed pieces, but says for a few years, “I thought that I was mostly talking to myself.” He was recently recruited by the free markets-boosting Manhattan Institute as a senior fellow, and in July, he helped found the Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators (ACRE), which bills itself as “an organization of medical professionals dedicated to the advancement of patient care through productive collaboration with industry and its counterparts.”
“Finally, people are beginning to have skin in the game, and they realize where all this regulation is going,” says Stossel.
ACRE's debut conference, held in Boston on July 23, was standing room only, says Stossel. It focused on product-based speaking bans and the new Massachusetts law on industry-physician contact. A week later, Stossel gamely defended industry-physician collaboration before a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing titled “Medical Research and Education: Higher Learning or Higher Earning.”
“Sen. Kohl, who's been very critical of the industry, seemed to get that we shouldn't be throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he says hopefully.
Some of the blame for the industry's bad rap belongs to pharma companies, says Stossel. “They've been wimpy with the pharmascolds,” a term he co-coined for industry critics. “If you don't vigorously rebut them, people think you must have something to hide.”
Stossel's the centrist of his accomplished clan—not a “card-carrying libertarian” like his brother John, host of ABC's 20/20. Stossel's wife, Kerry, just left Tom's of Maine after a long stint leading professional advocacy. Their two kids, Sage and Scott, work for The Atlantic Monthly.
He and Kerry travel to Zambia several times a year to deliver medical and dental care to residents of a remote chiefdom. “I've done 10,000 fluoride treatments on kids,” says Stossel, who has also worked on addressing sickle cell anemia there. “It takes my mind off of conflict of interest.”
Thomas Stossel, MD,
Director, Translational Medicine Division and senior physician, Hematology Division,
Brigham & Women's Hospital
Founding member, the Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
American Cancer Society Professor, Harvard Medical School