You can’t make this stuff up.
This week I received a cheerful E-mail from a well known academic key opinion leader or KOL. Only the E-mail didn’t really come from Dr. Ian Cook at UCLA. It really came from a company called PeerView Institute for Medical Education. The E-mail offered on-line CME content with the topic Essential Aspects to Building a Therapeutic Alliance Between Patients and Practitioners for the Treatment of Mood Disorders. Whenever I see an anodyne title like that I know there’s trouble ahead.
The content came in the form of a dialogue between Dr. Cook and another well known academic KOL, Dr. Michael Thase from Penn. Beneath two prominent corporate logos, a disclosure stated This activity is supported by educational grants from AstraZeneca LP and Lilly USA, LLC. Another disclosure stated This CME/CNE/CPE activity is jointly sponsored by Purdue University College of Pharmacy and PVI, PeerView Institute for Medical Education. The program also states This activity has been planned and implemented in accordance with the Essential Areas and policies of the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) through the joint sponsorship of Purdue University College of Pharmacy and PVI, PeerView Institute for Medical Education. Purdue University College of Pharmacy, an equal access/equal opportunity institution, is accredited by the ACCME to provide continuing medical education for physicians.
I happen to know Dr. Cook and Dr. Thase, so already I am thinking why are these productive academic researchers from first tier universities doing a yawner CME gig like this? Then I get it. Most academic physicians have been told by now that they may no longer speak for hire at dinners and events sponsored by Pharma. You know, the sort of thing that Charles Nemeroff tried to pass off as CME-like, only Senator Grassley wasn’t buying it. So now the action has moved to commercial CME activities that carry the imprimatur of ACCME, thus confirming the principle that the flow of marketing money must find an outlet.
My jaundiced view of ACCME’s performance and credibility is a matter of record. For that matter, I am on record with a jaundiced view of the entire CME business. Here is what I said back in 2008.
…Continuing Medical Education (CME) is a second front in the campaign to expand (drug markets). The standard formula calls for corporate sponsorship channeled through an “unrestricted educational grant” to a medical education communications company (MECC). The MECC employs writers to prepare the “educational content,” and academic KOLs are recruited to deliver this content. The KOLs are chosen for their willingness to be “on message” for the corporate sponsor. If they go “off message” they know they will not be invited back. The talk of “unrestricted grants” is window dressing. The MECC also secures the imprimatur of a nationally accredited CME sponsor, typically an academic institution. The sponsor is paid to certify that the CME program meets the standards of the Accreditation Council on Continuing Medical Education (ACCME). Everybody turns a buck: the MECC and its staff are handsomely paid (CME is now a multi-billion dollar business); the KOLs are generously rewarded with honoraria and perquisites; the academic sponsor is well paid by the MECC; the ACCME receives dues from the academic sponsor; the audience obtains free CME credits rather than having to pay for these required educational experiences; and the corporate sponsor gets what it considers value for its marketing dollar.
So, I approached this free on-line CME offering with a good deal of skepticism. Most of the content was pedestrian and scripted – not because these KOLs couldn’t have done better but because someone at the MECC scripted it for them. Someone at the MECC also put the slides together, about which more in a moment. The material was formulaic, a succession of clinical banalities accompanied by Power Point slides that said everything and nothing. I cannot imagine that a physician would learn anything substantive from these educational tropes.
The impresarios at PeerView Institute for Medical Education, funded by Lilly and AstraZeneca, came through with the desired spin. The corporate sponsors obtained the soft messaging they wanted. Their products olanzapine and quetiapine were not promoted overtly, but it was surely gratifying that the content emphasized the accepted place of such second generation antipsychotic drugs as a class in mood stabilization for bipolar disorder and in augmentation for nonresponsive major depression. This soft messaging was delivered with the appearance of authority, within a package of algorithms, strategies, Venn diagrams, and measurement tools that featured potential upsides but gave hardly a nod to the worrisome side effects of such drugs, especially in depressed patients . And it surely was no accident that the sponsors’ drugs appeared as exemplars in slides and in the follow-up questions – another form of soft messaging.
Finally, I came upon incontrovertible evidence that these KOLs did not prepare the educational content of the program. A slide that discussed antidepressant drug options contained a panel dealing with the MAO Inhibitors (MAOIs). This class of antidepressant drug appeared in the 1950s, and MAOIs still have a limited place in clinical practice. The information given about the MAOI drugs in the enduring material (slide) of this program, however, is dated, inaccurate, and dangerous. Here is the relevant section of the slide.
MAOIs (eg, benmoxin, hydralazine phenelzine, pheniprazine)
↓ efficacy compared to TCAs 4
COMMON SIDE EFFECTS
• Drowsiness, dizziness, loss of visual acuity, GI side effects, insomnia, irritability 4
What’s wrong with this? Plenty. Benmoxin has never been marketed in the US and was discontinued in Europe many years ago. Hydralazine is not an MAOI but an antihypertensive agent. Pheniprazine was discontinued many years ago due to marked toxicity. Meanwhile there is no mention of tranylcypromine or selegiline or moclobemide, which are in current use. The listing of hydralazine, which has no antidepressant activity, is especially dangerous. Likewise, the laundry list of side effects manages to omit the single most important problem with the MAOI class – potentially lethal dietary and drug interactions.
There is only one way to say it – this educational content is incompetent, reckless, and dangerous. I know both the KOLs well enough to be certain they would never develop such educational content themselves. So, who did develop it? Some functionary at PeerView Institute for Medical Education, who had no clue what s/he was doing. Compounding the problem, the Purdue University College of Pharmacy waved through this incompetent material for CME credit. If the Purdue University College of Pharmacy wants to provide continuing education for pharmacists, fine. But I draw the line at allowing an institution that does not train physicians to provide continuing education for physicians. I do not understand why this is permitted by ACCME. On the evidence of this program, the Purdue University College of Pharmacy lacks the expertise to provide continuing education for physicians.
The standard is simple. The standard is not ‘we try to ensure accuracy’… the standard is we get it right – that’s what our role models teach us in medical school and residency training. These KOLs are accountable for the reckless errors in this content because they allowed their names to be featured as the authorities. Plainly, they did not develop the educational content and they did not take the time to review the enduring materials as their accountability required.
Why have the deans of US medical schools not banned academic physicians from participating in such commercial CME gigs? It is no secret how phony these events are. Why not help these busy academic clinical scientists to maintain their focus by limiting them to educational programs at academic medical centers and at meetings and functions genuinely sponsored by professional medical societies? As the present example shows, anything else is business as usual under cover of a fig leaf.
I want to be clear that I have enjoyed friendly relationships with Ian Cook and Michael Thase for a long time. It’s not personal, it’s about standards and it’s about tradecraft. If academic KOLs are too busy to maintain standards and tradecraft then they should pass up these educational charades. For shame, guys.
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