An emergency doctor at Hennepin Healthcare will no longer be permitted to work as the medical director for a popular stun-gun manufacturer, following outrage from elected officials and community members who called the relationship a conflict of interest.
Dr. Jeffrey Ho, head of Emergency Medical Services at the Twin Cities safety-net hospital HCMC, has worked as a paid consultant for Axon Enterprise Inc. for 14 years, the past 10 as the company’s at-large medical director. Per the most recent agreement, Ho dedicated at least 32 hours per month to studying Axon products, most of which focused on the company’s signature weapon, the Taser stun gun. Axon reimburses the hospital at least $140,000 per year, according to HCMC records.
Thomas Hayes, spokesman for Hennepin Healthcare, said the hospital decided to end this agreement effective July 18. It will also update its conflict of interest policy.
“Hennepin Healthcare leadership made the decision to end the relationship,” Hayes said in a statement. “We are focused on our primary purpose of partnering with our community to ensure access to outstanding care.
“Moving forward, we are updating the Hennepin Healthcare System conflict of interest policy and approval process to ensure that they align with our mission and values. This work includes a review of the policies, disclosure requirements, and process to consider, approve, manage, or eliminate actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”
Ho will still work for Axon “in his individual capacity,” said Axon spokeswoman Carley Partridge.
In May, the Star Tribune published a report detailing the extent of Ho’s ties to Axon, the Arizona-based company formerly known as Taser International. In addition to his duties with Axon and the hospital, Ho is also a licensed law enforcement officer, working part time as a Meeker County sheriff’s deputy. And he’s been instrumental in the hospital’s sedative research, which became the subject of protests last summer.
As a consultant for Axon, Ho has traveled the world giving more than 100 presentations about the company’s products to law enforcement and medical professionals. With funding from Axon, he’s written articles disputing claims from human rights groups that Tasers can be dangerous or even deadly.
He has defended Axon or law enforcement agencies more than two dozen times in lawsuits — charging up to $400 per hour for his services as an expert — often when someone says a Taser has killed or severely injured a person. Axon cites Ho’s research under claims on its website that its stun gun is not only safe but also responsible for saving more than 216,000 lives.
“Dr. Ho is one of the world’s foremost experts in the study of conducted-energy weapons, and his important work can be credited with saving countless lives,” Partridge said.
In past interviews, Ho defended his work with Axon as a parallel pathway to protecting the public.
“People who call my ethics into question don’t know me very well,” Ho said in e-mailed responses to the Star Tribune this spring. “My goal has been to use this work to protect people from injury, save lives in the field and to fairly reimburse my employer for my time spent in this endeavor.”
The hospital did not previously cite Ho’s role with Axon on its website, though officials said Ho disclosed the relationship internally and he did not violate any rules.
Several elected officials have since called for hospital leadership to update its conflict-of-interest policy in response.
Sen. Jeff Hayden credited Dr. John Cumming, Hennepin Healthcare’s interim CEO, with taking “decisive action” after he and others raised concerns over ethical “loopholes” the relationship exposed. Hayden said he took issue with HCMC being “in bed” with the manufacturer of a product that is used to inflict harm on people.
“What hospital has a relationship with, you know, a gun manufacturer?” he said.
Hayden said the decision will help the hospital as it seeks to earn public trust.
“I think that they still have a long ways to go,” Hayden said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat also praised the move to better focus on the hospital’s core mission of helping the region’s most vulnerable patients.
“I applaud Dr. Cumming’s action to end the hospital’s relationship with the Taser company,” Opat said in a statement. “That relationship was simply not consistent with how I want the hospital to be viewed by our patients and taxpayers. In addition, the hospital needs all its talented staff at work directly with patients, rather than providing legal testimony on behalf of Taser.”
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036