You may not expect to find an ivory tower academic whose erudite specialty is philosophy hanging out at drug marketing conferences, but that’s where you would have found Dr. Sergio Sismondo a few years ago. The professor of philosophy at my old stomping ground, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, turned up at the annual meeting of the International Society of Medical Planning Professionals, one of two large organizations representing medical communications firms.
A medical communications firm is a business that sells services to pharmaceutical and other companies for “managing” the publication and placement of scientific research papers for maximal marketing impact, often running a full publicity campaign to help sell the drug being “studied”. This is an alarmingly widespread practice in which drug companies essentially decide what your physician will end up reading in medical journals. Continue reading →
With a university degree in biology, young David landed a new job with a medical communications company. His first writing assignment was to produce scientific abstracts for studies of a newly approved antibiotic. Alas, the drug had a major weakness: it didn’t work on pneumococcus, a common bacterium. But this wasn’t something the drug’s manufacturer (David’s client) wanted doctors to know.
So David and his fellow medical writers were ordered to just avoid writing about it. Continue reading →
There has been no shortage of intriguing topics to write about over the past year. As I’ve said before, marketers are smart, and we consumers need to learn how to outsmart them. Part of that learning, of course, involves just becoming more savvy about how things work out there in the world of marketing. This year, a first for me: threatened legal action by the mega-law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom who took exception to seeing their client’s name mentioned here.* Continue reading →
I’ve been writing about (and against) medical ghostwriting since I first learned about this Big Pharma marketing practice. In fact, my gobsmacked reaction to this very subject is largely why the Ethical Nag site was launched in the first place. I had just learned about lawsuits* filed in the U.S. by thousands of women diagnosed with breast cancer – a diagnosis suspiciously linked to their hormone replacement therapy (HRT). And recently the journal Public Library of Science Medicine (who with the New York Times originally broke the story) published an unprecedented analysis of the issue that caused the link.
The poster child of medical ghostwriting is Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Inc. (now owned by Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company) who were then the makers of the best-selling HRT drugs on earth, Premarin and Prempro.
Wyeth’s ghostwritten medical journal articles attempted to:
mitigate the perceived risks of breast cancer associated with HRT
defend the unsupported cardiovascular “benefits” of HRT
promote off-label, unproven uses of HRT such as the prevention of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, vision problems, and wrinkles.
Although Jeanne Lenzer’sarticle about stealth marketing in Reporting On Health is actually meant for other journalists, it reminds me that we consumers should all be more savvy when it comes to evaluating medical news. Before my own heart attack, for example, I pretty well swallowed any medical miracle breakthrough news without question.
But because I now take a fistful of powerful cardiac medications everyday, I have become gradually both aware of and alarmed by Big Pharma marketing, and especially about what Dr. Marcia Angell herself (for over 20 years the Editor-in-Chief at the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine) calls “… its pervasive conflicts of interest that corrupt the medical profession.”
In fact, I have absolutely no way of knowing which of my cardiac meds were prescribed for me based on flawed research or tainted medical journal articles that were funded and ghostwritten by the very drug companies who stand to gain by paying for positive outcomes. And, worse, neither do my doctors. This is allowed to happen in part because of what we now know as “stealth marketing“.
Whenever I feel like I don’t have quite enough aggravation in my life, I used to like checking out Stuart Laidlaw’s medical ethics column in the Toronto Star. For example, Stuart’s eagle eye once spotted a disturbing article about ‘marketing-based medicine’ published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. It looked at the ever-so-slightly sleazy topic of data fishing. This is what Big Pharma does when science is used improperly to help market their drugs. This includes selective use of clinical trial results to suppress or spin negative results.
For the sake of clarity, let’s call this “lying”.
Another example of marketing-based medicine is the alarmingly dangerous practice of medical ghostwriting. This happens when a report that’s bought and paid for by the drug company to give a positive review of one of its products is then published in medical journals under the name of a respected academic who had little (if anything) to do with the actual journal article. See also: Partners in Slime: Why You Should Be Alarmed About Medical Ghostwriting.Continue reading →