What happens when a medical school changes its name?

Some say conflict of interests between donor and school is too high

When a medical school changes names to honor a benefactor, is there an inherent conflict of interest? Writing in the New York Times' "Well" blog, physician Danielle Ofri discusses the implications.

According to a recent article in Academic Medicine, 24 of the country's 141 medical schools have changed their names to reflect a donor—modest compared to the nearly 80% of U.S. business schools named for donors. However, Ofri writes that the pace of medical school name changes is increasing.  

The price tag for a nametag isn't cheap. At Ivy League schools and prestigious medical colleges, some benefactors have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to see their name represented. For instance, Cornell University's medical school, now called Weill Cornell Medical College, and the medical school at the University of California-Los Angeles, known as the David Geffen School of Medicine, were both recently renamed for their benefactors—for $200 million apiece.

Related: More donors are asking for their money back

Comparatively, the Harvard School of Public Health last fall became the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, for a slightly steeper price of $350 million.

A high risk, high reward situation?

While the funding given to medical schools from such benefactors helps fund research endeavors and other educational resources, conflicts of interests can sometimes arise between the school, its mission, and donors' wishes.

According to Ofri, issues to consider include whether:

  • A benefactor might desire that the university take a certain direction in research or medical care that is not really needed;
  • Medical students could learn to believe "everything is for sale," a message they may already get from the pharmaceutical industry; and
  • Patients could get the impression that their care is influenced by the donor.

Ofri writes, "The larger issue is whether medical school names ought to be bought and sold at all, since medical schools function in the public service in a way that business schools may not."

She discusses article author Jay Loeffler's account of conversations with students of medical schools named for benefactors. He says the students "were embarrassed that there was a rich person's name on their diploma, with the university name tucked below in small print," seemingly cheapening schools' legacies.

Ofri's proposal

Ofri concludes, "A school embodies a philosophy, a history, and a spirit that is different from the physical buildings in which it is housed," making it different from other entities named for benefactors, like athletic facilities and auditoriums.

Also in EAB Daily Briefing: MIT starts the new year with a $118 million gift

So, instead of naming a medical school for the "person with the biggest checkbook," Ofri suggests, "perhaps it should be renamed for the greatest physician or teacher who most influenced its students."

However, she writes, "if you ask physicians who were their most influential teachers, they will almost always say their patients." So, perhaps one day influential patients, too, could be in the running, she says (Ofri, "Well," New York Times, 1/15).

The takeaway: Physician Danielle Ofri takes a look at some of the issues that come with renaming a medical school for a benefactor, including concerns about perceived conflict of interests

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