Some local patients may soon be able to learn whether their doctors are paid on the side by pharmaceutical firms or medical-implant makers.
In the spring, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and its health system, known collectively as Penn Medicine, plan to launch a Web site that will contain searchable information on all outside activities of its doctors and scientists.
"When all of us are up there transparently, it may make us a little more responsible," said Arthur H. Rubenstein, dean of the medical school and head of Penn Medicine. "It is just human nature: If you know someone else is going to know what you are doing, you may be more careful."
Rubenstein emphasized that the process was still in the planning stage. "I think people realize it is the right thing to do, and we are very committed to do it."
Locally, the medical schools at Drexel, Temple, and Thomas Jefferson Universities have no plans to publish their doctors' outside contracts. The schools require doctors to disclose outside income internally and to patients when there is a potential conflict.
Public disclosure of the ties between its medical staff and industry would put Penn at the forefront of an emerging trend in response to growing concerns about medical conflicts of interest.
Over the summer, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) revealed that three Harvard doctors, including renowned child psychiatrist Joseph Biederman, had gotten millions from drug makers and failed to fully disclose that income, as required by the university and the National Institutes of Health.
"Obviously, if a researcher is taking money from a drug company while also receiving federal dollars to research that company's product, then there is a conflict of interest," Grassley told his Senate colleagues.
Grassley and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D., Wis.) are pushing legislation requiring industry payments to doctors of more than $500 to be available publicly in a national database.
Last year, the top five makers of hip and knee implants agreed to post all payments to orthopedic surgeons as part of a settlement in a federal kickback probe. An Inquirer analysis of those disclosures revealed that 51 doctors nationwide - including Robert E. Booth Jr. and Richard H. Rothman in this area - received $1 million or more in 2007 in royalties, speaking fees and consulting deals from the five firms.
Several major drug makers, including Eli Lilly and Merck, have said they would begin disclosing payments to doctors next year.
And this week, the Cleveland Clinic said it had posted on its Web site such information on all 1,800 of its doctors.
The profiles of each of the medical center's doctors and scientists include the companies that they worked with and indicate whether the staffer gets royalties, holds an equity interest in the firm, or is paid $5,000 or more under consulting deals.
Penn's proposed Web site would expand on its current policy, which bans staff from accepting gifts, meals and free drug samples from pharmaceutical firms and others.
Rubenstein said openness about those relationships is critical for those involved in direct patient care, where trust is a key element of clinical success.
"In terms of patient care, there seems very little argument against it and very strong reasons to do it," he said.