Partners in Slime: Why medical ghostwriting is so alarming

medical research NYT

“It’s prostitution!” claims University of Toronto professor of law and medicine, Trudo Lemmens, describing how medical school academics engaging in ghostwriting “undermine the integrity of the whole system”.

But since few academics will ever confess that they weren’t actually the real authors of all the medical journal articles they have taken credit for, the full extent of drug company-funded medical ghostwriting fraud may never be known. With the recent public release of 1,500 court documents implicating drug giant Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and its partners in slime, maybe now the medical profession will finally develop a collective backbone.

This isn’t just about one slimy drug company getting caught red-handed and facing 8,400 lawsuits* (since independent, federally-funded research indicated an increased risk of heart disease and breast cancer for patients who were prescribed hormone replacement therapy drugs like Wyeth’s Premarin and Prempro).

It’s not just about 26 medical school professors now embarrassed in the media for claiming to be the authors of pro-HRT medical journal articles that they didn’t write.

It’s not just about medical journal editors who are publishing what they must know are fraudulent scientific papers written by medical ghostwriters bought and paid for by drug companies.

This is all about you.

This is about your health and every kind of drug or treatment or medical device or procedure your body will ever be subjected to, now and for the rest of your life.

It’s about who you and your family can trust in health care.

Medical ghostwriting is pervasive. Trudo Lemmens cites a 2003 study in The British Journal of Psychiatry revealing that over half of all published medical journal articles about the Pfizer anti-depressant drug Zoloft over a three-year period were actually written by Pfizer’s hired New York ghostwriting firm – and not the academics who claimed to be the articles’ authors. The rest were written by independent medical researchers who actually did the work.

Guess whose articles were more positive about Zoloft?

My former corporate PR self might have cynically said that it’s simply savvy business practice for all drug companies to hire medical ghostwriters. Here’s how it works:

  • You can get dozens of favourable medical journal articles published about your drugs that claim, fraudulently, to be authored by noted researchers instead of your own paid ghostwriters.
  • Other doctors out there then read these published journal articles, and are duly convinced to start prescribing more of your drugs to their patients.
  • Your drug company makes lots of money.
  • You get a big bonus at the end of the year.
  • The academics get to painlessly claim authorship of yet another journal publication for their CVs.
  • Everybody wins. Except for the patients.

Those medical ghostwriters are now coming forward to claim defensively: “Hey! What’s the big deal? We’re like editors – just helping these poor doctors to improve their writing skills!”

But Stuart Laidlaw in his Toronto Star medical ethics column replied this way in his essay called “Ghostwriting: What’s The Harm?”:

“No reporter would discount the role of a good editor. Any story that appears in a newspaper has been edited two or three or more times before it appears in print. This is not ghostwriting. Ghostwriting happens when an anonymous writer prepares an article that is edited by a respected researcher in the field. The editor’s name then appears on the paper as author. No newspaper I know assigns bylines that way.”

The biggest danger of ghostwriting, said James Szaller, a Cleveland lawyer leading a large class-action suit against Wyeth, is that doctors rely on such journal articles when caring for their patients.  He says:

“It puts patients at risk, and doctors are relying on marketing materials and not true clinical studies or unbiased reviews of the medical literature. It’s insane.”

In the interests of not letting the slimy go free, I urge you to join the ranks of those of us who are spitting mad about the common drug and device industry practice of medical ghostwriting.

Let’s keep this issue alive long enough to get it kicked to the curb forever.


UPDATE:  June 19, 2012

Pfizer Paid $896 Million in Prempro Settlements

Bloomberg:   Pfizer Inc. has paid $896 million so far to resolve about 60 percent of the cases alleging its Wyeth subsidiary’s menopause drugs caused cancer in women, the drugmaker said in a securities filing.

Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, has now settled about 6,000 lawsuits alleging Prempro and other hormone-replacement drugs caused breast cancer, and has set aside an additional $330 million to resolve the remaining 4,000 suits, according to a May 10, 2012 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The reserve means New York-based Pfizer has now committed more than $1.2 billion to resolving claims that it failed to properly warn women about the menopause drugs’ health risk.

More than 6 million women took Prempro and related menopause drugs to treat symptoms including hot flashes and mood swings before a 2002 study highlighted their links to cancer. These hormone medications are still on the market.

Visit the Public Library of Science Medicine journal to learn more about medical ghostwriting and their recommendations for making medical literature transparent and credible.

Watch this five-minute video about Connie Barton’s successful lawsuit against Wyeth.

UPDATE, September 7, 2017: Health News Review:  A blow to [STAT’s] credibility’: MD listed as author of op-ed praising drug reps didn’t write it. Ghostwriting/PR influence:  Dr. Robert Yapundich, the physician listed as the author of a now-retracted op-ed praising the vital role of drug company sales representatives didn’t actually write the piece.”

See also:


9 thoughts on “Partners in Slime: Why medical ghostwriting is so alarming

  1. A colleague just sent me a link to this ghostwriting article. Very disturbing topic – thanks for letting us know about this.

  2. This is alarming. Only scratching the surface, I’m afraid. This is only the info we know about, so it makes one wonder how much is out of sight/out of mind.

  3. Thanks for this. As you say, biggest danger here is that doctors read these journal articles or – even worse! – are “educated” by their industry-paid peers at conferences or CME training and actually change their practice of medicine based on what the drug companies want them to believe.

  4. I have never even heard of the term “medical ghostwriting” until today when I read this. At first, I thought what’s the big deal – aren’t these ‘writers’ just helping out doctors who are not necessarily effective writers? But the more I read, and then after I read all your essays in medical ghostwriting category here, I became very upset.

    Sounds like this has become so entrenched in academia that doctors don’t even get it, all the better for drug companies to entice them to participate in what is clearly fraudulent attribution, just part of their product marketing plan.

    I’ll be subscribing to your site. Please keep those updates on medical ghostwriting coming.

  5. This makes me cringe. “MEDICAL GHOSTWRITING” makes me sick – to think this is going on and NOBODY seems prepared to end the practice.

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