When agendas are at play, who’s looking out for health consumers?

24 July 2019
Uncovering conflict of interest concerns related to human health
With the rise of biomedical and reproductive technologies, genetic engineering and stem cell research, Sydney bioethicist Wendy Lipworth is at the forefront of protecting consumers from undue influence.
Associate Professor Wendy Lipworth

When reflecting on her decision to pursue academia over clinical medicine, Wendy says she's never looked back.

Associate Professor Wendy Lipworth is a SOAR Fellow at Sydney Health Ethics and the University of Sydney School of Public Health.

Her research focuses on understanding the ethics and politics of health technology innovation, looking at how new medicines and other health technologies are developed, tested, regulated, funded and used in practice.

With a background in clinical medicine, she is motivated by an understanding that health technology innovation exists primarily to serve the 'public good' but often involves the competing commercial, professional, personal and political agendas of researchers, clinicians, educators and policymakers.

Her research interests lie in uncovering areas where conflict of interest concerns may arise, developing new strategies to recognise influence, and informing policy in the best interest of all parties.

"Healthcare and science exist primarily for the public good, so all activities should be orientated towards consumer well being."
Dr Wendy Lipworth, Sydney Health Ethics

As Wendy describes it, the challenge of her work as a bioethicist lies in 'striking the right balance' between protecting consumers from bias and exploitation, while also being sensitive to the complexities and realities of contemporary healthcare and biomedicine.

To inform her insights, she uses a combination of argumentation (to see what kinds of moral arguments make sense) and empirical methods (to find out what stakeholders think) to derive policy-relevant conclusions from both sources.

Should we try to manage non-financial interests? Yes, says Wendy in her latest paper published in the British Medical Journal.  

Research impact

Since starting in academia in 2002, Wendy has published over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles, 10 book chapters in ethics, social science, law and medical publications, and has co-authored the Routledge edited book 'Medical professionals: Conflicts and quandaries in medical practice.'

She's also been a Chief Investigator on NHMRC and ARC grants totalling over $4.5 million and has just completed a large NHMRC-funded research project on conflict of interest in health and medicine, presenting her findings nationally and globally.

The insights of her research have been used to inform policy and guidelines for a range of corporations, including the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR), Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Endocrine Society of Australia (ESA), Therapeutic Goods Administration, among others.

What's next?

As the fields of healthcare and biotechnology continue to rapidly advance, ethical issues and conflict of interest concerns are rising just as quickly, says Wendy.

Taking a look ahead, she says she is focused on leading her research team on a range of projects that seek to do what is right for patients and consumers, using the lens of bioethics to examine influences over clinical innovation, assisted reproductive technology, stem cell interventions and access to expensive interventions.

The Sydney School of Public Health is home to some of the most highly cited researchers in the world, including many whose research informs policy and practice in Australia and internationally.

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