Are Doctors too Cozy with Drug Makers?



We’ve all seen those free pens and notepads in our doctor’s office, the ones that make us wonder if our doctor’s advice is as unbiased as it should be. After all, how impartial can you be if you’re being given free gifts and who knows what else from the very companies who want you to prescribe their medication? This isn’t a new compliant, as over the years there have been numerous allegations that doctors and drug makers are too comfortable with one another, the latter treating the former to lunches, cruises, and lots of free swag.

With concerns about healthcare costs, prescription drug safety, and medical malpractice rising, what is a patient to think? Just consider the blockbuster failures of dangerous – and now off-the-shelf – drugs like Fen-Phen and Vioxx. You might be interested to know that recent studies have confirmed what we’ve all long suspected – drug company marketing does in fact influence the care that you receive.

Tainted Research

Dr. Sergio Sismondo, a Canadian researcher, alleges that drug companies act as a kind of “invisible hand” behind drug studies, practicing “ghost management” of everything from the research, analysis, and writing to the actual publication of studies in medical literature. Dr. Sismondo claims that these ghost-managed articles, “give corporate research a veneer of independence and credibility.”

Many drug companies hire MECCs (Medical Education and Communication Companies) which are mainly for-profit companies whose primary revenue stream comes from pharmaceutical companies. One MECC writer claims he was often reminded to cast the drug company’s product in a positive light when preparing articles for publication. That’s not exactly the unbiased evaluation that we would expect from rigorous scientific analysis of a new drug. The writer adds that she was responsible for preparing an entire research paper, while the byline was given to prominent physicians who were paid an honorarium for the use of their name. Sadly, this isn’t an unusual tactic, and is surprisingly common in the world of pharmaceutical marketing.

Carl Elliott in The Hastings Center Report summarizes the MECCs role this way, “Pharma pays the MECC; the MECC puts together the articles; academic physicians are paid to sign onto the articles, and the MECC places the articles in medical journals.” With over 100 MECCs in the United States, one has to wonder just how many peer-reviewed scientific articles have benefited from their ghost-management. Not only that, but are we being prescribed drugs that have either no benefit or underreported side effects, just so some drug company can make money?

Big Pharma Educating our Doctors?

Equally troubling is the “education” arm of MECCs, which provides continuing medical education (CME) for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. That’s right, your doctor could be taking “educational” courses from a for-profit company whose clients are Big Pharma! In fact, over 60% of CME courses in the United States are estimated to be funded by pharmaceutical companies.

The money is “laundered” much in the same way as it is for the writing of scientific articles. Big Pharma puts up money, usually in the form of an educational grant. This grant money goes to a MECC, which puts together an “educational program”. The pharmaceutical company and the MECC recruit academic physicians to deliver the program. If the MECC is accredited they can offer the class themselves, otherwise they go through the continuing medical education (CME) office of a medical school. Then, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers attend this “educational program” to satisfy the requirements of their continuing medical education. How is Big Pharma benefiting from these educational programs? They get to push their agenda through MECCs and CME classes with the appearance of objectivity.

A Personal Touch

Pharmaceutical companies take a great interest in personally connecting with the physicians they depend on to prescribe their drugs. They send out armies of drug company representatives (often attractive, personable and well-educated men and women) to woo doctors with one-sided statistics, free samples, and information about potential “off-label” uses for the drug (that is, uses that are not approved by the FDA). These drug reps rely on relationship building with a physician and his or her office staff, with frequent visits, gifts of lunch, pens, notepads, coffee mugs and perhaps an invitation to a drug company sponsored conference. Do these visits just sound like harmless marketing? Not so fast. Studies have found that doctors who receive visits and gifts from pharmaceutical sales reps are more likely to prescribe the drugs recommended by these representatives – for both on and off label uses.

Doctor-focused Advertising

While it’s well-known that drug companies are free to participate in direct to consumer marketing of their products, what many people don’t realize is that they spend a great deal of money marketing directly to physicians, doctors in training (residents) and medical students. When you consider that pharmaceutical companies spend about $21 billion on drug advertising and promotion each year, you have to wonder where all that money is going. A recent study found that drug companies spend more on product promotion (24.4% of sales) then they actually do on research and development (13.4% of sales). Promotional efforts include spending on controversial marketing tactics like the use of MECCs and pushing off-label use of certain drugs. In fact, the pervasiveness of drug company advertising is regarded as such a problem in the medical field that studies have been conducted to find ways to prepare young doctors to be more skeptical of drug company reps. This is a great start, but we hope to see more regulation and oversight of the guerilla sales tactics used by pharmaceutical giants. There is no reason that innocent patients should be victimized by being prescribed ineffective or dangerous drugs in the name of corporate profit.

Virginia Medical Malpractice Lawyers

If you’ve been the victim of a medical error then The Serpe Firm wants to help you. The Serpe Firm is a Virginia based practice serving the Norfolk, Tidewater, Virginia Beach, and Richmond areas. Contact us today and let us help you recover from the devastating effects of a medical error and get you the compensation you deserve.



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