Bad Week: A Coincidence Or Cause And Effect?


Leonard Zwelling

So two stories come out in the same week and it surely is not a good week for MD Anderson’s leadership.

In the first, the federal government in the form of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services came down on the clinical labs of MD Anderson for reasons that are not entirely clear but appear on the surface to involve an adverse event during a blood transfusion of some kind. The damage is not outlined. Who was responsible for the error isn’t either and what the error was is not obvious. MD Anderson self reported the mishap, so there can be no accusations of a cover-up, but given the publicity this got, one would think the whole story should be out. My public relations teacher Steve Stuyck always said “get it out, get it all out and get it out the first time.” That has not been followed here and I assume for some good reason although I can’t imagine what that would be.

Unfortunately, in clinical medicine, mistakes occur and owning up to them in the public sphere as well as to the regulators is probably the right thing to do, but I suspect there are patient protection and confidentiality issues in play here as well.

The second article is Peter Waldman’s piece for Bloomberg News about the Chinese scientists who seem to be in the cross hairs of the federal government as well as those of some academic institutions, like MD Anderson and Emory. This story focuses on Xifeng Wu, the former chair of Epidemiology at MD Anderson who was hounded out of town by the powers at Anderson under the past president and when given a chance to do the right thing, the current president just stepped away. Let’s be clear that the persecution of Dr. Wu was not initiated under the Pisters Administration, but under the previous one. Nonetheless, and I know this from having been involved, this could have been handled much better than it was by the current leadership. That has been true of all of the issues surrounding the Chinese faculty. At best the current leadership is bumbling. At worst, it’s malevolent. Either way, people are paying high prices for what appear on the surface to be minor offenses and ones that at other institutions are eliciting very different responses from local institutional administration.

The only real question that has been raised in my email in box is whether or not the two government intrusions and the two articles are related. The answer is that I have no idea.

On the one hand it could just be coincidence that the two pieces hit the press in the same week. They certainly involve different aspects of the MD Anderson operation. But the suspicious may wonder and with good reason.

The federal government is putting a great deal of pressure on academic institutions and their Chinese faculty via the heavy hand of the NIH. If someone was not knuckling under to that pressure, why not employ CMS if the NIH is not enough, although I thought NIH was happy with Anderson’s response to its pressure?

Now is the time for MD Anderson to come clean on all aspects of these stories.

1. What did the fired Chinese scientists do to warrant such an institutional response?
2. What did the one scientist not fired, but investigated do, that was not egregious enough to warrant his or her firing?
3. What was the error in the clinical labs that garnered MD Anderson the letters from CMS?
4. And, by the way, who is responsible for all of this, the actions, the decisions, the errors? Along with transparency, accountability counts, too.

I sincerely doubt that there is any connection between the Chinese scientist fiasco at Anderson and whatever the error was in the clinical labs. The only way to be sure is to be transparent which MD Anderson has thus far chosen not to be—yet again. To me, that’s the story. Why won’t Anderson come clean? What are they hiding? Why?

Leonard Zwelling