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Recently I heard a Rabbi discuss the prohibitions against bribes in Jewish law. He shared the Talmudic insight that “a gift blinds the eyes of the wise” and taught that this refers not just to obvious bribes but even to small, innocent-seeming gestures that appear too insignificant to influence another person but that actually do cause a conflict of interest. I told him this sounded very similar to contemporary relationships between pharmaceutical companies and prescribing physicians, where small gifts like pens and take-out lunches are tools of the trade –viewed as innocuous by their recipients but seen as a good investment by the givers.
I revisited a blog post I wrote on the topic back in 2006 along with aJAMA article (Health industry practices that create conflicts of interest: a policy proposal for academic medical centers) by Brennanet al. from the same era. I looked at the list of articles citing the Brennan piece to see if I could find something more current. Lo and behold I discovered Unconscious conflict of interest: a Jewish perspective by Gold and Applebaum in the Journal of Medical Ethics, which probes this issue in more depth. They write:
The Talmud [Tractate Kethuboth folio 105b] suggests that, due to the unconscious mechanism of influence between the giver and the receiver, the prohibition of receiving a gift is not limited to physical gifts, but extends to any other personal benefits, including ‘a bribe of words’:
Our Rabbis taught: ‘And thou shalt take no gift’; there was no need to speak of [the prohibition of] a gift of money, but [this was meant:] Even a bribe of words is also forbidden, for Scripture does not write, ‘And thou shalt take no gain.’ What is to be understood by ‘a bribe of words’? –As the bribe offered to Samuel (a Talmudic scholar who served as a judge). He was once crossing [a river] on a ferry when a man came up and offered him his hand. ‘What,’ [Samuel] asked him, ‘is your business here?’ –‘I have a lawsuit,’ the other replied. ‘I,’ came the reply, ‘am disqualified from acting for you [ie, as a judge] in the suit.’
In a meticulous reading of the story mentioned above, it is not clear whether Samuel, the Talmudic scholar, actually accepted assistance from that ‘courteous’ man. In fact, his reaction of disqualifying himself from serving as a judge seems to be related solely to the man’s offer. That man’s gesture –offering his arm– was a sufficient cause for the disqualification. The gesture alone was perceived by Samuel as a sort of speech-act that emanated –perhaps unconsciously– from the man’s desire to influence his judgement. In other words, the offering of the arm was ‘a bribe of words’.
To me this is fascinating stuff and suggests that to truly avoid the unconscious conflict of interest in the pharma/physician relationship it would be necessary to cut off all contact between pharma rep and doctor. Even when a drug rep is prohibited from distributing tsotchkes or tapping his restaurant budget, the physician still knows the rep would give him things if he could. Under this logic, the “no see” policies of some physician organizations toward pharma reps make good sense.
There is another solution, which is to educate physicians about unconscious biases and the objectives and tactics of pharma companies, device companies, health plans, and other would-be influencers. Even better would be to couple this education with conscious efforts to counteract any biases that are introduced.
Physicians are notoriously skeptical of the notion that they are influenced by gifts large or small. Therefor the article wisely concludes:
For those disinclined to accept either the insights of sociologists and anthropologists or the findings of modern neuroscience on the tendency towards reciprocity in response to the receipt of gifts and favours, perhaps the wisdom of the ancients provides a reason to rethink the unconscious influence of even small benefits on physician behavior.