Spinal Tap

The University of Wisconsin has endured the taptaptap of bad news about one of its faculty for years, and for years it has closed its ears to it.

It’s our old friend Thomas Zdeblick, object of a federal investigation into his remarkably lucrative relationship with Medtronic.

Investigators … found that two papers Zdeblick co-authored were among 11 in which Medtronic employees, including those in the company’s marketing department, were secretly involved in drafting and editing, a practice known as ghostwriting.

Both papers were published in the Journal of Spinal Disorders & Techniques where Zdeblick has served as editor-in-chief since 2002. That role was the subject of a 2009 Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today investigation that found the journal frequently published favorable articles about Medtronic products under Zdeblick’s watch. The story noted that Zdeblick’s financial relationship with Medtronic was not disclosed by the journal.

Many more gory details here. The picture the investigation draws is one of rampant conflict of interest destructive of patient health and research integrity. An Emory professor to whom Medtronic gave $25.5 million protests that the money had absolutely no effect on the articles he wrote about its products.


The Zdeblick scandal jumps to Reuters. Perhaps now, with the release of the Senate’s definitive report, this story will get the attention it deserves. The University of Wisconsin will no more respond to it than Donna Shalala’s University of Miami will face up to what it has in Charles Nemeroff. It will take international coverage of practices at schools like Wisconsin for the conflict of interest that corrupts academic medicine in the United States to change.


Two of the featured Medtronic beneficiaries are at the University of Louisville.

‘”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.”‘

UD‘s buddy Carl Elliott puts the ongoing, er, difficulties of a University of Wisconsin professor in perspective.

“What kind of message goes out when the chairman of the department who is going to be evaluating promotions is so deep into the pocket of Medtronic?” he said. “That message, that you can have it all, that you can take millions from Medtronic and still be chairman of the orthopedics department, that’s a message that should make people uncomfortable.”

You must remember this: A Zdeblick is just a Zdeblick. A Medtronic is just a Medtronic. The fundamental things apply.


And ask yourself: Why should this guy, a fully-functioning arm of the Medtronic corporation, bother with the whole “chairman,” “professor,” “university” thing anyway?

Look at it from Medtronic‘s point of view and you’ll immediately understand. They’re after the prestige and scientific legitimacy most people continue to associate with universities. As long as the University of Wisconsin continues to agree to play its assigned role – generator of an atmosphere of intellectual integrity – Medtronic will insist that its man remain on its faculty.

There are certain celebrated American university professors….

… who cannot seem to keep their names out of the papers.

Their universities continue to praise them to the skies — see here, here, and here — and yet the New York Times and various United States senators and various university colleagues are constantly writing in very negative terms about these guys, sending them angry letters, suggesting they’re corrupt and destructive…

Biederman, Nemeroff, and Zdeblick aren’t the only controversial high-profile medical school professors in America; but no other professors have been so enduringly under attack – for conflict of interest, for suppression of negative evidence, for personal greed – by the media, professional organizations, and Congress. All three men, for years and years and years, have been accused of serious misbehavior. Their names are always in the papers, and always for the wrong reasons.

Zdeblick is -for the umpteenth time – in today’s headlines.

When does a university decide that a prominent, grants-getting, journal-editing, mover-shaker on its faculty has become so compromised that he or she should go? Emory University let Nemeroff go, but the University of Miami immediately panted after him, and has worshipfully adored him ever since… I mean, you have to wonder: Do the leaders of these universities even know they have a problem?

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