From doctor kickbacks to regulatory loopholes, conflicts of interest in medicine have been a recurring theme of Fauber’s investigative journalism.
In 2008, John Fauber got the tip that would set his career in a new direction. A veteran journalist, he had reported on medical discoveries and science for 13 years for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Before that, he’d covered everything from the courts to business. But in 2008, he caught wind that academic physicians at the University of Wisconsin, Madison were allegedly consulting and speaking for drug companies. And he decided to take a closer look.
Examining publicly available disclosure forms, Fauber found that dozens of doctors were receiving money from companies like Pfizer and Novartis to speak on the companies’ behalf and promote their products. Some physicians would take tens of thousands of dollars for a week, or even a few days, of talks. In one case, an anesthesiologist endorsed the potentially fatal drug aprotinin, produced by Bayer, as an alternative to blood transfusion during heart surgeries. He continued to speak for Bayer a year after the FDA issued a public health advisory for the drug, stopping only after the sale of the drug was suspended due to an increased risk of death during surgery.
Fauber published his findings in a January 2009 piece for the Journal Sentinel — his first foray into writing about conflicts of interest in medicine. At the time, he thought he might return to science news reporting. Then a second tip, about drug companies funding continuing medical education for doctors, reeled him back into the waters of investigative journalism. There was still more to uncover, and Fauber wanted to do the uncovering.
Writing for the Journal Sentinel’s ongoing “Side Effects” series, Fauber went on to report on issues such as conflicts of interest in the opioid industry and a spine surgery product linked to cancer risk. He was part of a team that notably revealed that the FDA approves drugs for cancer and diabetes based on surrogate measures — the size of a tumor, a patient’s blood sugar levels — rather than measures related to quality of life.
Fauber has also written about preventable deaths of newborns in hospitals that do not process test results on weekends, the medicalization of binge eating, and loopholes that allows doctors who have been penalized in one state to evade consequences in another. His work has garnered more than 25 national journalism awards and a special commendation from the Columbia Journalism Review.
For the past decade, conflicts of interest in medicine have been the recurring theme of Fauber’s work. “Anytime I come across something that I think that fits that description, I get kind of excited,” he says.
Fauber plans to build on that theme as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. He hopes to use his time at MIT to lay the groundwork for a book that will look at modern-day conflicts of interest through a historical lens. He envisions the project as the culmination of his years of investigative reporting at the often-messy intersection between medicine and business.
Already, he’s finding that many of the conflict of interest issues he’s reported on are new versions of age-old problems.
“I thought this was more of a later phenomenon,” he says, having figured that only after the drug industry became big and powerful did it start spending a lot of money to wield influence. “But it was really going on 50 years ago, 60 years ago. I’m hoping that I can take some of that historical stuff and weave it into the book.”
This is the first in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.