“A statement from the head of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table reveals that a conflict-of-interest on the part of one of the table’s most vocal members was only properly declared after the conflict was first reported by the Toronto Sun. David Fisman, an epidemiologist and professor at University of Toronto, was retained by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) to offer an argument against the Ontario government’s school reopening plans at an Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing. This work was taken on at the same time Fisman was serving on the science table, which advises the government on matters including school reopenings.
‘I understand that Prof. Fisman has updated his declaration of interest statement on the normal six-month cycle,’ said Prof. Adalsteinn Brown, the head of the table, in an email to the Sun Tuesday evening. ‘This should be posted on our website shortly. In the meantime, Prof. Fisman’s work for the ETFO has been publicly visible for months.’
Fisman’s updated disclosure — noting the addition of his paid work for both the ETFO and the Ontario Nurses Association — did appear online Tuesday evening after the Sun first contacted Fisman and Brown for comment and after the story went live. ‘The science table has asked all of its volunteer members to disclose their conflicts on a form that we aim to update every six months,’ wrote Brown, who is also colleagues with Fisman at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. The previous disclosure statement was made, according to an email from Fisman to the Sun, on July 17. The day the disclosure notice went public falls just a week beyond six months after that.
But according to medical experts interviewed by the Sun, the six-month disclosure structure is not necessarily the typical standard followed by the medical profession.
‘I was surprised that a conflict of interest is only being declared every six months,’ says Martha Fulford, a professor at McMaster and infectious diseases physician at Hamilton Health Sciences. ‘Every committee I’ve been on like this, including a provincial advisory committee I was on, begins every meeting asking if there are any conflicts to declare.’
Dr. Neil Rau, an infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist based out of Oakville, sees it similarly. ‘When I was on the committee to evaluate drugs for the province, we had to make a declaration at every single monthly meeting,’ he told the Sun. The request to declare conflicts was the opening line spoken at most meetings, according to Rau.
‘A conflict of interest can exist even if the physician is confident that their professional judgment is not actually being influenced by the conflicting interest or relationship,’ explains guidelines produced by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. The guide was focused on relationships with industry and did not cover specific insights into paid relationships with unions and advocacy groups.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s office said in a statement released Tuesday evening that the news of Fisman’s conflict was ‘deeply concerning. Our expectation is that anyone involved in providing advice to the government in this capacity would do so absent of agenda or bias, and therefore this paid relationship raises legitimate concerns,’ the statement continued.
ETFO president Sam Hammond released a statement acknowledging the paid relationship and said that the union stands with Fisman because he is ‘holding this government to account.’ Fisman’s document that he was retained to draft specifically clarifies that his comments critiquing the government’s reopening plan were meant to be ‘fair, objective and non-partisan.’
Fisman defiantly took to social media Wednesday morning with a series of posts that began labelling the Sun’s previous report as a ‘hit piece,’ criticized Ford for what he described as ‘his many failures,’ and concluded with: ‘I’m not going anywhere’.”