University of Wisconsin spinal surgeon Dr. Thomas Zdeblick is in the hot seat over a running tab with med-tech titan Medtronic Inc. (NYSE:MDT) that’s topped $25 million since 2003.
During that time, Zdeblick, chairman of the university’s orthopedics and rehabilitation department, co-authored several favorable research papers about Medtronic’s spine products, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
It’s the latest instance of a university official under fire for ties to big medical device companies. Once considered a sign of prominence in the field, such relationships are under increasing scrutiny for potential conflicts of interest.
It’s not the first time Zdeblick has gotten heat for his ties to Medtronic. In 2009 a Senate Finance Committee investigation revealed that the chairman was implanting 4 types of Medtronic devices that he had invented or had a hand in inventing. UW has spent $27 million on Medtronic spinal devices between 2004 and 2010, according to documents obtained by the newspaper.
The most frequently implanted was a spinal fusion device used in clinical trials to help Medtronic’s controversial Infuse bone-growth protein win FDA clearance. At the time of the 2009 Senate investigation, Zdeblick’s total Medtronic take since 2003 topped $19 million.
Another UW orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Paul Anderson, reportedly received $225,000 from Medtronic between 2008 and 2010.
"I really don’t know how you would manage that conflict of interest," Dr. Jordan Cohen, former president of the American Assn. of Medical Colleges, told the Journal-Sentinel.
"Well, you could call it a conflict of interest, but I prefer the term ‘corruption,’" Dr. Carl Elliott, University of Minnesota professor of bioethics, said of Medtronic’s financial relationships with doctors in September 2010. "A lot of doctors used to fool themselves into thinking the money didn’t affect them, but by this point there is a huge body of empirical literature on the topic. To deny that you are influenced by the money takes a kind of studied ignorance."
UW dean Robert Golden defended Zdeblick, whose more than $1 million annual salary makes him the university’s most highly paid physician. The university also emphasized that Zdeblick receives no royalties from Medtronic spinal products used at the UW hospital.
"Dr. Zdeblick is one of the most talented and innovative orthopedic surgeons in the nation," Golden told the paper. "We are most fortunate to have him as department chair."
The news follows last week’s revelation that a University of Minnesota Medical School spinal surgeon had failed to fully disclose his ties to Medtronic.
Dr. David Polly received a warning letter from the university stating that he had violated several conflict of interest disclosure requirements by not divulging payments he received from the Fridley, Minn.-based medical device giant in two published journal articles and on one research poster, according to the university.