A number of years ago, I had occasion to meet a local psychiatrist named Dr. Faruk Abuzzahab, a former faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry here at the University of Minnesota. The occasion was a class in medical ethics I was teaching, and which Abuzzahab had been ordered to take. As I later wrote in The New Yorker, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice had judged Abuzzahab a danger to the public and had suspended his license in response to the deaths or injuries of forty-six patients under his supervision, seventeen of whom had been research subjects. Abuzzahab had recruited severely ill patients into profitable, industry-funded drug trials, often in violation of eligibility criteria, and kept them in the studies even after their conditions worsened dramatically. When the board suspended his license, it cited his “reckless, if not willful, disregard of the patients’ welfare.”
You might think being sanctioned for the deaths and injuries of 46 patients would damage a psychiatrist’s career. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Shortly after the suspension was lifted Abuzzahab was back at it, giving marketing talks for industry and conducting trials. In 2003, only a few years after his suspension, the American Psychiatric Association awarded him a Distinguished Life Fellowship.
That episode came to mind again this morning when I read a press release from the university about Dr. Charles Schulz, the current Chair of the Department of Psychiatry. Apparently Schulz will be receiving the 2014 Stanley Dean Award for Research in Schizophrenia from the American College of Psychiatrists. Of course, readers of Mad in America will probably know Schulz better as a thought leader for AstraZeneca implicated in the events leading up to the $520 million fraud settlement, and his role in the CAFÉ study – the clinical trial at the University of Minnesota into which Dan Markingson was recruited under threat of involuntary commitment, resulting in his suicide. (For the rare reader of Mad in America unfamiliar with the Markingson case, see this article.)
The timing of this announcement is intriguing. For the past month, a petition to investigate psychiatric research misconduct at the university has been quietly gathering momentum. The number of signatures has just passed 2100. It is not often that you will find an issue on which the editors of The Lancet and Guinea Pig Zero agree, but the need to investigate the University of Minnesota is one of them. MindFreedom International has endorsed the petition; so have 200 academic experts in health law, clinical research and medical ethics, including former editors of The New England Journal of Medicine. Many alumni of the university have left distraught comments on the petition. One example: “I went to the U of MN and am appalled by what I’ve read about this case.”
At this point, it still not clear who will prevail: those who want to honor the Department of Psychiatry, or those who want to have it investigated. Of course, I am in the latter group, along with the family and friends of Dan Markingson. But the other side is wealthier and better armed. If you have been following this case but have not signed the petition yet, please consider signing on. Even better: sign it, tweet it, email it to your friends, and post it on your Facebook page. You can find the petition at this address: http://chn.ge/13TtenX
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.