Conflicts of Interest Ethics: Silencing Expertise in the Development of International Clinical Practice Guidelines
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BACKGROUND: It is unclear whether global experts with financial conflicts of interest (FCOIs) should be included in, be excluded from, or have a limited role in developing international clinical practice guidelines (CPGs). Optimal management of FCOIs to ensure independent, expert CPGs remains ethically contested. OBJECTIVE: To manage FCOIs and examine whether an ethics framework with discussion recusal by experts with FCOIs affects deliberations and voting on a CPG. DESIGN: Development of an ethics framework grounded on transparency and proportional management of COIs, including self-recusal, evaluation of the effect on COIs and CPG process by quantification of voting on recommendations, and qualitative assessment of experts' ethics dialogue. SETTING: International consensus meeting to formulate a CPG in gastroenterology. PARTICIPANTS: 34 experts from 15 countries. MEASUREMENTS: Counting the votes of experts with and without declared FCOIs and qualitative assessment of ethics discussions. RESULTS: 62% of experts reported at least 1 FCOI. Eight out of 21 recommendations presented potential FCOIs. Experts with conflicts recused themselves from discussing 6 of the 8 recommendations, leaving a majority of nonconflicted discussants (median, 22; range, 19 to 26) for the 6 recommendations. Recusals did not affect voting outcomes but may have diluted the richness of the discussions. Ethics dialogue revealed accord on transparency but underscored challenges to proportional management of COIs beyond basic disclosure. Concerns about bias, COI definitions, expertise, and integrity express important international ethics questions. LIMITATION: Small participant numbers and application of the framework to only 1 meeting of 1 CPG. CONCLUSION: An ethics framework may help to identify and manage COIs and catalyze both ethics dialogue and innovative COI standards that seek to balance impartiality and expertise for trusted CPGs. Optimal balancing remains contested. Recommendations include frameworks, interdisciplinary analysis, and international policy initiatives to better manage COIs in the CPG process. PRIMARY FUNDING SOURCE: Canadian Association of Gastroenterology; European Association for Gastroenterology and Endoscopy; Asian Pacific Society of Digestive Endoscopy; and Institute of Diabetes, Metabolism, and Nutrition of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
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