Scott Reuben, the Massachusetts doctor dubbed the medical equivalent of Bernie Madoff by Scientific American, was sentenced to six months in federal prison on June 24. His crime: faking favorable painkiller study results. Reuben pleaded guilty to one count of health care fraud in February.
The 51-year-old anesthesiologist, formerly chief of the acute pain clinic at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., also got three years probation, and was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and make restitution of $362,000 to the companies that gave him research grants. Those include Pfizer (for Bextra, Celebrex and Lyrica) and Merck (for Vioxx).
Reuben’s lawyers have since said he suffered from bipolar disorder.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the sentence is significant.
“Lots of people just get their grants suspended and they move on and work somewhere else,” said Caplan. “It’s notable that they went after this guy. It’s a pretty clear message that there’s less tolerance of fraud and misconduct now.”
Baystate started to get suspicious about the pain-management thought leader in 2008 when the hospital conducted a routine internal audit and found that Reuben did not have institutional review board approval for two studies he was conducting. In March of 2009, Baystate announced that Reuben admitted he never conducted the clinical trials he wrote about in 21 journal articles. He’d been faking research since 1996.
Reuben even invented some patients and forged the names of “co-authors” on the journal articles—real researchers who had not participated in any research with Reuben. At least 13 of his studies published in journals had to be retracted.
Reuben was a paid member of the Pfizer’s speakers bureau, delivering talks about Pfizer drugs to other doctors. The company gave him five research grants between 2002 and 2007.
Reuben, who went to medical school at State University of New York at Buffalo and completed his residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, no longer holds an appointment as a professor at Tufts University’s medical school, and his license status with the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine is listed as “voluntary agreement not to practice.”
“These cases are hugely damaging to the clinical research process when they occur,” said Caplan. “They put patients at risk because medicines are given with false data and therefore an inadequate base of evidence. They waste taxpayers’ money. They cost a lot to weed out and detect, so it’s bad for universities that get stuck having to track this down.
And it’s bad for the reputation of clinical research. Happily, though, this is rare.”