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U of M surgeon defends work with Medtronic

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Dr. David Polly
Dr. David Polly is a Professor and Chief of the Spine Service at the University of Minnesota Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

A University of Minnesota doctor who's now part of a look into conflicts of interest, says information about payments to him doesn't tell the whole story.

Dr. David Polly spoke to MPR News Friday, a week after U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, requested information about him.  That request came in the form of a letter to the University of Minnesota that also asked for information on the university's own conflict of interest policy.

Polly, a spine surgeon in the university's Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, received more than $1 million over five years to consult with medical device maker Medtronic, based in Fridley.

Grassley said the doctor never mentioned that link when he testified to Congress in 2006 about a Defense Department program with ties to the company.  Polly only said he was speaking on behalf of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

The senator also said in his letter he was 'alarmed' to learn that Polly later billed Medtronic - not the AAOS - for the costs of that trip to Washington, D.C.

But Polly said it didn't appear there was a forum or venue to make such disclosures that day.

"If there had been, certainly I would have been delighted to disclose," he said.  "And if I was asked to testify before Congress tomorrow or currently, I would probably do things differently to be a little more clear about who I have financial ties with."

"If there had been, certainly I would have been delighted to disclose."

Polly added he was a 'rookie' that day; it was his first time testifying before Congress.

Senator Grassley's letter also includes spreadsheets of invoices Polly submitted to Medtronic for reimbursement, forms that Polly says don't provide much context on their own and are 'hard to make sense' of.

"People are now applying a particular viewpoint to a spreadsheet that was not intended to be a standalone document," he said.  "If we're going to have transparency, transparency out of context is hard to interpret."

Grassley's request to the University of Minnesota is the latest in a number of inquiries made to universities across the country. In June, he asked 23 medical schools for information about their conflict of interest policies. 

"There's a lot of skepticism about financial relationships between doctors and drug companies," Grassley said in a June 24 statement. "Disclosure of those ties would help to build confidence that there's nothing to hide. Requiring disclosure is a common-sense reform based on the public dollars and public trust at stake in medical training, medical research and the practice of medicine." 

Grassley's requests are part of his effort to pass legislation he's co-sponsoring called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which would require drug, medical device, and biologics companies to report publicly any payments they make to doctors.

Polly said in his interview with MPR News that he supports Grassley's legislation, quipping at one point that "I can't be much more transparent than having my information posted on his website, can I?"

Grassley has also released examples that he says showcase universities that aren't managing their own conflict policies. They include a University of Wisconsin doctor who only reported getting "more than $20,000" from a company every year for five years, when the actual amount was around $19 million. 

Grassley has asked the University of Minnesota to respond to his request for information by Aug. 7; the university says it's working to meet that timeline. 

Polly also noted in Friday's interview with MPR News that he hasn't been contacted directly by Sen. Grassley's office, noting the letter was actually sent to the university.  But he said he's willing to share any information the senator might want.  Earlier this week, Medtronic spokesman Steve Cragle said Polly remains on the company's payroll, but the company is investigating the matter.

Cragle also defended the wide practice of private companies paying doctors for their insight. 

"When you're developing a device to be placed inside a human body, we need to work collaboratively with physicians to determine what works and what doesn't work," noted Cragle.  "The relationship between physicians and companies like Medtronic are really critical to ensure the most innovative and life-saving products are created."

Grassley's request also comes as the University of Minnesota is already in the middle of revising its conflict of interest policy. Mark Rotenberg, the university's general counsel, told MPR News that a draft is still being revised, but there's no specific date for having the new policy in place.