On US television, the ads for Lipitor (atorvastatin, by Pfizer) featuring Dr Robert Jarvik are hard to avoid. In them, Dr Jarvik introduces himself as "Doctor," attests to the years has spent "studying the heart," attests to the value of Lipitor, which he takes himself, and is shown jogging, and apparently rowing a racing scull.
Concerns about these ads yhave now hit the big time. Stephanie Saul reported in the New York Times that not only, as we briefly mentioned, is Dr Jarvik "not a cardiologist and is not licensed to practice medicine," but that he does not know how to row. The images that seemed to be of Jarvik rowing the boat were combined from videos of a "body double," and of Dr Jarvik in a boat held fixed to a platform.
Why is this a serious matter? Pharmaceutical companies contend that they spend a great deal of effort "educating" physicians and the public. The NY Times article quoted a company email, "Pfizer stands behind its consumer advertising for Lipitor and our work with Dr. Jarvik to deliver important information on managing heart health."
Yet the deceptive elements of the advertising - Jarvik's identification as "doctor" implies he is a practicing physician, the body double in the scull implies Jarvik is especially vigorous and athletic - are the opposite of "important information."
Furthermore, the public may and should know Dr Jarvik as an innovative scientist and engineer(corroborated by Ms Saul's reporting that he is currently working on a miniaturized cardiac assist device for heart failure). As such, his words should be trusted. The public's trust is violated when he allows the words to be delivered in a deceptive context.
Finally, a separate report by ABC news alleged that Dr Jarvik received $1.35 million dollars for doing the advertisements. Obviously, that is a lot of money, and may have influenced Dr Jarvik to think and speak more favorably about Pfizer and Lipitor. The public's trust is further violated when someone who appears as a trusted scientist fails to disclose that he is being paid to deliver a pitch.
Maybe this high-profile case will lead to at least more honesty in direct-to-consumer health care advertising, and at least full disclosure by physicians and academics when they are paid by pharmaceutical/ biotechnology/ device/ etc companies to deliver "education." But physicians and academics ought to rethink whether it really fits their professional values to end up being viewed as salespeople employed by marketers.
NOTE - See also coverage by Ed Silverman in the PharmaLot blog, (also here) and on the WSJ Health Blog.
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