Dr. Joseph Biederman, a leading authority on pediatric bipolar disorder, has come under sharp criticism for recent disclosures that he accepted large amounts of money from drug makers who sell medicines to treat that disorder. The disclosure of the financial ties raises questions about whether Biederman is, as a New York Times editorial put it, an expert or a shill.
Clearly, Biederman was at fault. He should have made the drug-money connection public, and he certainly should have notified Harvard University, where he works.
I worry, though, that news about this bad behavior on Biederman's fault will mean that fewer children with bipolar disorder will be treated. Here's a comment I posted on Nancy Shute's smart parenting blog for U.S. News:
Here's the problem with stories about conflict of interest: Yes, Dr. Joseph Biederman did extensive research on bipolar disorder in children, encouraging more widespread diagnosis of the disorder. Yes, he took a lot of money from a drug maker interested in selling medications to treat the disorder. Yes, there was a clear conflict of interest.
But does that mean bipolar disorder in kids is a trumped up or phony diagnosis? Not necessarily. Sadly, much of the coverage of this conflict-of-interest story implies that bipolar disorder in kids is not a real disease, but the product of a conspiracy between a researcher and a drug company. And the likely consequence? Fewer kids will be diagnosed with this disorder, and fewer will be treated for it. If it is in fact a real disorder, which is the majority view among child psychiatrists, these untreated children will suffer.