In July, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, then president of Brigham and Women’s hospital, stepped down from an outside, well-paid position on Moderna’s board of directors.
Her hospital was helping lead a large study of the Cambridge biotech’s COVID-19 vaccine and a Globe reporter had inquired about a potential conflict of interest.
There was no evidence of wrongdoing by Nabel. But at a moment when trust in medicine had never seemed so important — when the health and economic well-being of the region rested on faith in the coming vaccine — it was clear that Brigham and Women’s had to act.
And some, including the Globe editorial board, argued that other Boston-area medical institutions should take note — keeping a tight leash on executives serving on corporate boards, too.
But a recent report from the Globe’s Spotlight Team ups the ante. It turns out that Nabel, who resigned as Brigham and Women’s chief last month, was no outlier. Five of the seven CEOs and presidents of Boston’s major teaching hospitals serve on the boards of publicly traded companies.
That puts the city’s medical leadership well out of the American mainstream.
Spotlight analyzed 120 large teaching hospitals, children hospitals, and cancer centers outside of Boston, and found only eight cases of chiefs serving on the boards of publicly traded companies.
In Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and New York, not a single hospital studied by the Globe had a president or CEO who served on a publicly traded company board.
“Culturally, that’s just not something we do,” Lucia Lee, a spokesperson for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, told Spotlight. Running a hospital in a large metro area, she said, requires the undivided attention of its leader.
It’s time for Boston’s hospitals to demand that kind of undivided attention, too — forbidding their top executives from serving on the boards of for-profit drug and health care companies.
New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the world’s leading research institutions, put just such a ban in place in January 2019.
The move came after reports by The New York Times and non-profit news outlet ProPublica detailed a series of conflict-of-interest troubles at the hospital. Among them: the hospital’s chief medical officer had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from health care and drug companies in scores of journal articles; and Sloan Kettering had licensed images from a valuable tissue archive to three hospital insiders running an artificial intelligence start-up without putting the cache out to bid.
A decade ago, it was Boston that was at the center of a medical ethics storm. Documents in lawsuits prosecutors filed against Johnson & Johnson suggested a Massachusetts General Hospital researcher had improperly sought drug industry money by promising his work would promote greater use of psychiatric drugs among young people — accusations he denied.
Other suits uncovered aggressive marketing tactics by pharmaceutical companies — lavishing perks on doctors in the hope that they would prescribe certain drugs. The revelations forced a tightening of conflict-of-interest policies and a new emphasis on transparency across the health care industry. But the measures only went so far. Boston behemoth Partners HealthCare, the parent company of Massachusetts General Hospital, put a series of restrictions in place, only to pull back on them three years later when other academic medical centers didn’t follow suit.
Now, with conflict of interest concerns prominent again, it’s time for the city’s teaching hospitals to move en masse.
Top executives will lose lucrative sinecures if they can no longer serve on drug and health care company boards; but they make handsome salaries in their day jobs. Hospital leaders may lose some insight into what industry is up to; but there are other ways to forge connections with pharmaceutical companies and telehealth startups.
Even in Boston, there is evidence that another way is possible. Beth Israel Lahey Health, the parent organization of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, bars leaders from serving as directors at pharmaceutical and device companies; its chief, Peter Healy, is the only head of a major Boston teaching hospital who does not serve on the board of a for-profit company, save for Brigham and Women’s interim president.
Hospitals are special places, where patients put their lives in the hands of those treating them. Trust in those places and the people leading them is essential. And the benefits of directorships are too meager to justify a compromise of that trust.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.