Mike Fancher / Times executive editor
Hutch series triggers huge reader reaction and sweeping denials
No Seattle Times story in memory has produced a wider, deeper chasm of reaction than last week's series about the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
The series was called, "Uninformed consent: What patients at `The Hutch' weren't told about the experiments in which they died." In essence it concluded that patients died prematurely in two failed clinical trials in which The Hutch and its doctors had financial stakes. The patients and their families were never told about the financial entanglements, nor were they fully and properly informed about the risks of the experiments. Both trials were continued for long periods despite evidence they were failing.
Center leaders issued the most sweeping denial of a Times investigation that I have ever witnessed, dismissing everything. Dr. Lee Hartwell, president of the center, summarized the response at a Thursday press conference, saying, "I am here to state categorically that I have found all of these accusations to be blatantly false."
The Hutch launched a series of full-page newspaper ads to reinforce its position, as well as providing extensive information on its Web site. I encourage readers to visit that site, www.fhcrc.org, as well as The Times series, seattletimes.nwsource.com/uninformed_consent/.
Most readers applauded the investigation and what they considered the newspaper's courage in reporting it. Many condemned it as sensational and wrong. Some people on both sides reacted based on their own personal experiences with The Hutch and other medical institutions.
(Several reader letters can be found on today's site.)
So, what are we to make of this and where do we go from here?
Perhaps a starting point is to acknowledge areas of agreement.
• The Hutch is a highly respected, even revered, institution that has saved thousands of lives.
• Its goal of eliminating cancer will not be advanced without patients who are willing to participate in clinical trials.
• That participation will not happen if patients are fearful that they are not fully informed of the risks they face, of alternative treatments available to them and of potential financial conflicts of interest at the center.
• The issues of full disclosure and financial connections are not unique to The Hutch but are coming to the fore nationally.
Beyond that, officials at The Hutch genuinely believe that our reporters simply don't understand the nature of clinical trials. Their reaction springs from their deep conviction about what they do and how they do it.
It is not my place to suggest they should respond differently. However, it should be clear that public confidence will not improve until specific concerns are addressed in specific ways and until the center provides fuller financial disclosure.
Hutch officials insist that the system works. For example, they said that the first clinical trial in question was investigated thoroughly by federal authorities and found free of problems. That defense ignores our reporting of obvious flaws in that investigation, including a failure to interview members of the center's Institutional Review Board who had raised concerns about the trial.
Hutch officials said that internal review systems work, but that response ignores our reporting to the contrary from participants in that system.
They insisted there are no real conflicts of interest but acknowledged there is the potential for conflicts and the appearance of conflicts has existed.
Those are all issues seemingly worth further scrutiny.
Reader response to our series says that the public is in a very different place than officials at The Hutch. Most people don't inherently trust the motives and methods of medical researchers, especially in the emerging areas of biomedical technology. They believe the system needs examination and possibly reform. Likewise, the response says that many readers don't inherently trust the motives and methods of journalists, especially in the area of investigative reporting. We didn't need the reaction of some readers to this series to tells us that.
Where The Times goes from here is to continue to ask questions and to report what we learn.
Duff Wilson, one reporter for the series, is headed to Washington, D.C., to cover the Medical Research Summit, a privately sponsored forum for industry and regulators, on the regulation and ethics of medical research in the U.S.
At the same time, we'll thoroughly examine the specifics of The Hutch's complaints about out series.
The test of what we do is straightforward. Is it accurate? Is it fair? Is it complete? Does it serve the community?
Particularly when the subject involves issues of life and death, no lesser standards are acceptable.
If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to email@example.com.