New Leadership at Univ. of Minnesota Psychiatry Dept promises changes

Three years ago the Fox 9 Investigators told the story of a young man who died while enrolled in a psychiatric drug study at the University of Minnesota.

The story led to a legislative audit, which forced research reforms and a shake up within the Department of Psychiatry, leading to a new director.

After the scandal, nearly a third of the faculty hit the exits and about 3,000 patient visits went away.

Since then, the University of Minnesota has hired Dr. Sophia Vinogradov to revive the department with a troubled past and fading pulse.

Vinogradov said the department will recover “by working very hard to change the culture, change the processes and create a new vision moving forward.”

She's an expert on schizophrenia, the same mental illness suffered by Dan Markingson. It was the University's handling of his case that sent ethical shockwaves through the research community around the world.

"I know I would have handled things differently," Vinogradov said.

Markingson violently took his own life while enrolled in a drug company-sponsored study at the school.

Mary Weiss, Dan's mom, accused university doctors of taking advantage of his mental state to sign him up for the study. 

"He didn't pass away. They let him die. And they need to be held accountable," Weiss said.

Then, she said, they ignored her warnings that the drug trial was making him worse and that he was becoming suicidal.

When asked what Vinogradov would have done she replied, "I would have been available to them."

When she took the job last fall, one of the first things she did was get up in front of a department meeting and address the scandal.

"This was a case where things went wrong, many things were mishandled," she told the group.

It was an about-face from an administration that for years had denied any wrongdoing.

Mike Howard is a close friend of Weiss and was at her side as she pushed the U of M to reform its research ways.

He continues to advocate on her behalf after she suffered a stroke a few years ago.

When asked if Vinogradov could make changes to the program he replied, “Well, I don't know, the U is such a huge bureaucracy and it’s driven by dollars, but I think she is…she's stuck her neck out enough now where that's her stance and I don't think she's going to back down from it."

Vinogradov recruited Howard to be on a new community advisory council she formed.

"I felt he would be an amazing spokesperson for the issues that had arisen during the Dan Markingson case and making sure that these kinds of issues would never rise again," she said.

Vinogradov has also enlisted the help of a University whistle blower who warned there was a "culture of fear" within the psych department.

Niki Gjere is a psychiatric nurse who, three years ago, came to the Fox 9 Investigators with secret recordings.

They revealed there was more to the Markingson scandal than administrators were saying publicly.

"She is a breath of fresh air because she at least talks to people. She asks questions. She wants to know what's going on," Gjere said about the new leader. “She seems really interested in the department in terms of turning it around."

Gjere has no regrets about going public about the secret recordings.

To this day, she said, medical residents in the department refuse to speak with her or make eye contact.

But the new department head shows no signs of shunning her.

"It’s because she's played this role that I've invited her to be part of the chair's advisory group that will come and report directly to me about any concerns they see," Vinogradov said

Vinogradov is steering the department away from focusing primarily on using drugs to treat mental illness.

Of the approximately 60 studies currently underway, only three involve medications.

"My goal is to create treatments which will be able to be used so that people either can be on minimal doses of medication or for some people not on any doses of medications," she said.

Vinogradov comes to Minnesota from northern California. She worked at the San Francisco School of Medicine and, previous to that, the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

Her own research involves training the brain through the use of various mental exercises to treat schizophrenia.

Her motivation to seek alternatives to drug research is personal.

She has a cousin who developed a mental illness, and the treating doctor convinced her cousin to take part in a drug study he was conducting.

"As it turns out, she really shouldn't have been enrolled that drug study,” Vinogradov said. “She actually did not meet the inclusion criteria.” She added that it made her cousin's condition worse.

In a previous interview with Fox 9, Weiss showed her anger for the doctors who were involved in her son’s care.

"I think they should be in prison," she said.

But she told Fox 9 that recently, she's been encouraged by the efforts of Vinogradov to bring change to the department.

"I don't want to contribute to or participate in a culture where we are afraid to speak about what is really going on," Vinogradov said.

In April, the department will hold its first annual Dan Markingson lecture, an event for staff and the public to discuss the role of the family in mental health care - a chance, Vinogradov said, to honor Markingson and learn from the past.