Despite everything that has happened—having his job offer rescinded, having his reputation as a scientist attacked, and becoming embroiled in a $9.4 million lawsuit with U of T—Dr. David Healy is still optimistic that some good can come of what is by all accounts a pretty big mess.
Sitting down with the Varsity after a well-attended Hart House forum on academic freedom, Healy said he hopes his legal dispute will be settled in mediation and that a wider discussion about conflict of interest in research can grow out of the case.
“My line from the very start, from the very first letter I wrote to the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, is ‘look, couldn’t we sit down and talk about all this—there are bigger issues here than you may appreciate,’ ” said the eminent psychiatrist and researcher. “Although the issues are very complex, we should be able to work out a formula to solve this.”
Healy first made headlines when his job offer from the U of T-affiliated Centre for Addictions and Mental Health was revoked after he gave a lecture addressing the possible harmful effects of antidepressant drugs, as well as the negative influence pharmaceutical companies can have on medical research. In the debate that followed some harsh accusations about his credibility as a researcher were made, prompting him to launch a $9.4 million lawsuit against U of T and CAMH for breach of contract, defamation and breach of academic freedom.
“Despite everything that has happened I owe them no great ill will,” he said.
“I think there is a real problem—there is a problem for the university on the wider front, and my case does tap into some of the other cases on campus, but every problem offers for them an opportunity for greatness.”
Healy is optimistic that the facts of the case will be brought to light as a result of the mediations, facts he says can be invaluable in aiding the ongoing discussions about academic freedom.
“The key thing for me is to find out more about what happen, and for us to use these facts to see how we can deal with conflict of interest issues in the future,” he said.
“We can’t do that if we don’t get something pretty close to the truth.”
However, Susan Bloch-Nevitte, the university’s director of public affairs, says there isn’t a problem concerning academic freedom at U of T.
“We’ve heard a lot about conflict of interest at this university, but the fact is that companies play a much smaller role at the university than people realize,” she said, citing the fact that less than 18 per cent of the $800 million raised in the U of T funding campaign came from corporations.
She also spoke of the school’s policies regarding corporate funding. “U of T is the first post-secondary institution to devise a set of guidelines relating to donations, and academic freedom figures front and centre,” she explained.
The Provost’s Guidelines on Donations state: “The University values and will protect its integrity, autonomy and academic freedom, and does not accept gifts when a condition of such acceptance would compromise these fundamental principles.”
But Bloch-Nevitte admits that these guidelines do not cover donations made to university-affiliated teaching hospitals. “The guidelines are for U of T. They don’t extend to the hospitals,” she said.
While many are calling for the total cessation of corporate funding in medical research, Healy does believe a more moderate solution can be found.
He spoke of the important role patients and test subjects play in bringing about this solution.
“When the ‘consumers’ like you and me become patients in the health services and volunteer for medical research, we do this out of civic spirit completely.
“The vast corporate profits which are now being portrayed as corrupting people like me are only possible when we continue to participate in clinical trials,” Healy explained.
“An institution like U of T is in a terribly good position . . . to take a stand and say that the people going through our hospitals are not just going to hand over their bodies and their personal data just like that,” he said.
He advocates a contract “which allows the patient to get at the data about what the drug is doing in a way that you don’t have now if anything with the drug should go wrong.”
“These things can in fact be solved in a more market-based model and we don’t have to take the research funding opportunities away from the pharmaceuticals industry . . . there are other ways to handle the industry,” he emphasized. Healy also reinforced the effect students can have in the fight for academic integrity.
“You guys have tremendous power . . . once the demand for academic freedom starts to come from the bottom up, once students start to say ‘yes, this is a very important issue,’ that will have a huge effect.”
A year ago, after aggressive efforts to recruit Healy, the doctor agreed to move from his home in Wales to take the position of Director of the Mood and Anxieties Program at the CAMH, and a professorship of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
On November 30, 2000, Healy gave a lecture to the CAMH on the history of pharmaceutical drugs, paying particular attention to side-effects of anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac, which he worries might cause some patients to be suicidal.
The presentation received top marks but on December 7, 2000 Dr. David Goldbloom, Physician-in-Chief at CAMH and Professor of Psychiatry at the U of T, wrote to Healy informing him that he was no longer being offered the job at CAMH or U of T.
In September 2001, Healy brought forth a $9.4 million lawsuit against CAMH and the University of Toronto, on charges of breach of contract, defamation and denial of academic freedom for a total of $5.4 million.
Healy is personally suing the CEO of CAMH for $2.6 million and U of T’s dean of medicine for $1.4 million. The university has recently responded to the statement of claim, and have agreed to go into mediation.