The course was created by a medical education and communications company (MECC), paid for by Wyeth
The course material was developed largely by DesignWrite, a New Jersey-based firm paid by Wyeth.
The company is being investigated along with Wyeth by a U.S. senator looking into the practice of ghostwriting in scientific articles as a way to market hormone therapy drugs.
Together, Wyeth, DesignWrite and UW formed the Council on Hormone Education - the name of the educational organization stamped on course material for the class.
Thirty-four of the 40 council member physicians have financial ties to Wyeth, including the course director, Julie Fagan, a UW doctor and associate professor of medicine.
The course put hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for post-menopausal women in a very favorable light, at a time when results from a prominent randomized controlled trial sponsored by the Womens Health Initiative (WHI) had just become available, suggesting that HRT does more harm than good:
Rigorous studies involving thousands of women showed that hormone therapy increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, blood clots and dementia. They also showed quality-of-life benefits are short-lived.
In May 2002, a major clinical trial that was part of the Women's Health Initiative was suspended because medical investigators were worried they were subjecting women to too much risk.
In the fall of 2002, just months after the health initiative was stopped, the Council on Hormone Education launched its first UW hormone therapy medical education course.
'There were millions of women impacted by that information, and physicians and women really needed to have that information,' said Doug Petkus, spokesman for Wyeth. 'We felt we were providing a service to them by helping them . . . understand the significance.'
Over the next several years, Wyeth poured $12 million into the course.
According to the first newsletter published by the Council on Hormone Education, the goal of the course was 'to develop and disseminate balanced, accurate, timely and consistent information about hormone therapy' so doctors could "better serve women."
Other newsletters, which included patient handouts and multiple-choice exams in the back for physicians, urged doctors to consider the bonuses of hormone therapy.
For instance, in a newsletter titled 'Menopause and Quality of Life,' Wyeth-funded researcher JoAnn Pinkerton wrote: 'Undesirable skin changes associated with aging can have a deleterious impact on both physical and mental health. These changes include lines, wrinkles and dryness that affect Quality of Life.'
'American women attach to youthful, attractive skin,' she wrote, explaining that the age-induced changes are in large part the result of estrogen loss. There is no scientific consensus that estrogen supplements will reverse the aging process in skin.
The University of Virginia Health System doctor also suggested that depression, insomnia and mood issues could be the result of estrogen and other hormone imbalances.
Her conclusion: 'Hormone therapy treats menopausal symptoms more effectively than any other single agent.' And a physician must weigh those benefits against a woman's risk for 'coronary heart disease, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, stroke, breast cancer, and gall bladder problems, which hormone therapy may be associated with.'
Fagan, the UW course director, defended the program, saying nothing in the course material was scientifically inaccurate. However, she said the material was presented in a 'more positive light' than she would have preferred.
Some experts who reviewed the material thought that the "positive light" it placed on hormone replacement was very bright.
The Journal Sentinel asked several doctors, including Jacques Rossouw, chief of the Women's Health Initiative branch of the National Institutes of Health, to review course material. The initiative is the largest clinical trial of hormone therapy drugs.
He said the views expressed in the course are not those of the general scientific community and are not suitable for a university medical education course.
'There is a history of this kind of thing from Wyeth,' Rossouw said. 'The materials regurgitate lines that I have heard and read many times, and I have come to believe (though I do not know) that this is part of an overall marketing strategy to the profession. It is not good science because it fails to strive for any kind of balance.'
Raymond Gibbons, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and former president of the American Heart Association, said he also found material relating to heart disease one-sided.
He noted that the materials inappropriately gave observational data equal weight to rigorously done, randomized clinical trials.
'It's a lot of post hoc analysis,' he said. 'I don't see the other side of the argument.'
This is the second time that the University of Wisconsin medical school has received media attention for the cozy relationships with industry enjoyed by the school and its faculty members. We posted about some University of Wisconsin faculty's lucrative industry relationships, which they often did not fully disclose.
This, of course, is another story about how the web of conflicts of interest that now so enmesh academic medicine can enable stealth marketing, the disguising of marketing of commercial health care goods or services as medical education.
But because of the timing and subject matter of this course, this case has become a microcosm of much of what has gone wrong with US (and global) health care. Note this progression:
- Wyeth paid DesignWrite to design the course, which then paid the University of Wisconsin and its faculty to produce it. Thus considerable money flowed to the MECC and its employees, and to the university and its faculty. Ultimately, this came out of the pockets of patients or the public, adding to health care costs.
- The course they produced was viewed by numerous physicians. It is likely at least some were influenced by it to prescribe long-term HRT.
- Yet there is now (and there was in 2002) reason to believe that long-term HRT does more harm than good. A review in 2002 (see this link for summary, and links to the review) suggested that it produces increased risks of breast cancer, stroke, and pulmonary embolism which outweigh decreses in colorectal cancer and fracture. The WHI trial in JAMA had similar results (link here.)
- Therefore, more patients prescribed HRT by these physicians may have been harmed by it than were helped. Thus, the course not only added to health care costs, but likely worsened health care outcomes.
So in this case, deceptive practices presumably condoned by the leadership of a drug company, by the leadership of an academic medical institution, and by particular medical faculty, all of whom may have benefited personally by money spent to conduct these practices, likely did patients no good, and possibly did them serious harm. Deceptive practices and conflicts of interest resulted in increased health care costs and probably worse health care outcomes.
This suggests, as we have said before, that bad leadership of health care organizations causes these organizations to employ ethically questionable tactics, and these tactics in turn can systemically increase costs and worsen outcomes.
But up to now, there has been little public discussion of bad leadership and governance of health care organizations, the unethical tactics that bad leaders may employ, and how these tactics threaten physicians' professional values, and lead to bad outcomes for patients and society. Up to now, those interested in health care policy and health systems research have ignored these issues, which appear to be the herd of elephants in the health care living room.
But maybe if we improved the leadership and governance of health care organizations, and prevented the unethical practices they may employ, we could improve patient outcomes while actually controlling costs, improving access, and improving professional morale.
Of course, doing so would threaten many vested interests and fat wallets.
See also Dr Daniel Carlat's comments on the Carlat Psychiatry Blog, and Margaret Soltan's comments on University Diaries. Hat tip to PharmaGossip and the Schwitzer Health News blog.