The efforts of an Republican senator from Iowa to lift the veil on the secretive world of academic publishing and the ties between doctors, researchers and big medical companies is gaining increased attention, with stories this week in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinal and the Minneapolis Star Tribune have also got in on the action, writing about the ties to medical supply compnies and big pharma of local doctors and researchers at their local universities.
What all these stories have in common is the work of Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who is putting his post on the Senate Finance Committee to to use by looking into the ties between doctors and researchers and the big companies behind medical and pharmaceutical advances.
Also key in this whole thing is a stack of duments made public recently, thanks to a successful court motion by the New York Times and PLoS Medicine to unseal boxes and boxes of internal company documents from ghostwriting firm, DesignWrite.
The ties include researchers being hired as paid consultants for the companies whose prodcuts theya re supposed to be testing -- with some getting more than $1 million US in fees, and medical schools themselves receiving millions in research money from the companies -- and a surpirisingly widespread use of ghostwriters by academics (who, under most schools' academic policies would have to fail any of their students who did the same thing). The ghostwriters are paid $25,000 by the companies whose products they are writing about.
The result is a growing distrust of medical research and the medical profession, as the Washington Post writes:
You may not be able to trust your mortgage broker, your car salesman or your congressman, but you can trust your doctor.
Patients might well ask themselves this question when they learn that 94 percent of physicians have "a relationship" with the pharmaceutical, medical device or other related industries, according to a national survey of physicians published two years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine.
It is unclear how much those businesses spend on marketing overall, but Integrated Medical Systems, a research firm, estimates that pharmaceutical companies spend more than $20 billion annually marketing directly to doctors.
It does seem clear, however, that many patients want a better sense of the links their doctors have with industry.
A consumer survey last year by the Pew Prescription Project, an initiative to help eliminate conflicts of interest in prescribing, showed that 68 per cent of respondents supported legislation that would require public disclosure of financial relationships between physicians and industry. Seventy-eight per cent believed that accepting gifts from the pharmaceutical industry influences their doctors' prescribing habits, but only 34 per cent said they would be likely to ask their doctors about potentially troubling financial ties.
Such ties are dangerous. They not only lead to bad research being portrayed as good, but it taints good research which might be able to to people some good.