WWE’s Docs Governed by ‘Private’ Pitt Med Center Ethics Policy

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This blog is exploring how a cluster of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physicians came to join the medical staff of World Wrestling Entertainment, the company of Connecticut U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon.

In my view, these three doctors – WWE medical director and neurologist Joseph Maroon, cardiologist Bryan Donohue, and endocrinologist Vijah Bahl – have done little except give political cover to this billion-dollar publicly traded corporation and to the McMahon family, which runs and profits from it.

At the moment, I am especially interested in Dr. Donohue, who is supposed to be supervising cardiovascular screening of WWE talent under a 2007 revision of the company Wellness Policy. In December 2009, six months after being fired by WWE for refusing to go to drug rehab, wrestler Eddie “Umaga” Fatu died at age 36 of a massive coronary brought on by a toxic mix of prescription medications. Fatu’s autopsy showed that he had an enlarged heart.

In addition, Dr. Donohue’s overall portfolio of outside business interests may be a bit too entrepreneurial for my blood. Leveraging his medical credentials, he recently started a hype-happy company in the largely unregulated supplement industry.

In 2008 the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center published a new ethics policy, which has been widely praised for controlling the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies on the clinical decisions of doctors.

However, when I viewed the text of the policy online, I noticed it included links to general University of Pittsburgh guidelines for faculty conflicts of interest — and those links did not work.

Yesterday I spoke to Frank Raczkiewicz, a UPMC media relations director, about getting access to the blocked documents. Raczkiewicz referred me to Dr. Barbara Barnes, the UPMC vice president who authored the ethics policy.

Dr. Barnes told me that the links within the UPMC ethics policy to the University of Pittsburgh policies were designed not to be publicly accessible because the latter are “internal” documents.

In our phone conversation yesterday, Dr. Barnes did not have time to get into the substance of my reporting on the relationship between UPMC and WWE. I emailed her with my contact information but did not hear back.

Later yesterday I sent around to all the principals an email with the following text:


Ed Patru / Linda McMahon for Senate campaign, media relations

Robert Zimmerman / World Wrestling Entertainment, media relations

Bryan C. Donohue, M.D.

Joseph C. Maroon, M.D.

Barbara E. Barnes, M.D. / University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Vice President of Continuing Medical Education, Contracts and Grants and Intellectual Property

Frank Raczkiewicz / University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, media relations

I am about to post to my blog a report headlined, “Umaga Autopsy Turns Focus to Linda McMahon’s WWE Cardio Program and Docs.” The post — to which I invite all of your comments (see my contact information below) — includes the following points:

* The autopsy report on wrestler Eddie “Umaga” Fatu — a WWE performer until six months before his December 2009 death from a heart attack caused by prescription drug toxicity — showed that he had an enlarged heart. This raises questions about the cardiovascular screening under the WWE Wellness Policy. Dr. Maroon is WWE’s medical director. Dr. Donohue is the consulting cardiologist.

* Dr. Maroon, Dr. Donohue, and a third member of the WWE medical team, Dr. Vijay Bahl, have UPMC practices. This raises questions about the UPMC ethics policy that took effect in February 2008.

* The UPMC ethics policy seems primarily aimed at the issue of pharmaceutical companies’ inducements to doctors, which can compromise patient care. However, there are also general conflict-of-interest issues, as well as specific ones involving physicians’ relationships with the non-regulated supplement industry. Dr. Donohue is a co-founder of a supplement company, which he aggressively promotes in media appearances. Dr. Maroon has written a book touting the same supplement and is cited prominently on its website.

* Dr. Maroon’s professional associations in pro football — as a doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers and as a member of the National Football League’s concussion policy committee — are also noted. I point out the case of Richard Rydze, yet another UPMC physician who was dropped by the Steelers after he was found to have purchased huge quantities of growth hormone from the Internet gray-market dealer Signature Pharmacy. I also review my previously published reports that Dr. Maroon’s NFL concussion work has been criticized as too passive, and that he and WWE last year gave ESPN misleading information about his access to the postmortem brain studies of WWE performer Chris Benoit, who committed double murder/suicide in 2007.

Irvin Muchnick

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick