Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Of Drug Talks, Deception, and Denial

A month ago, we discussed a series of reports by Pro Publica and multiple other respected news organizations about payments by seven pharmaceutical companies to thousands of doctors.  Industry often claims that they only pay the best and the brightest physicians and academics to provide education relevant to their products.  However, the ProPublica et al report suggested that they mainly recruited physicians who already showed their favor to their products by prescribing them often, but soothed their consciences by dubbing them "thought leaders" or "key opinion leaders."  While some of the physicians were well-known academics, others had notably blemished records. 

Since then, a series of local or regional news organizations have reported on physicians in their areas.  These reports (all listed below as "references" in somewhat chronological order ) further explained how these "drug talks" are just marketing exercises, and how some of the physicians involved rationalized making money hawking drugs.

Physicians as Marketers

Considered together, the articles documented how the drug talks served marketing rather than educational needs.

Doctors are the Most Influential Speakers

As noted previously, corporations and the doctors they hire chronically characterize the doctors' talks as educational. However, from New York City,(9)
[Dr Stephen] Friedes said drug companies can’t use sales reps to give the same speeches. Instead, they need doctors to serve as speakers because the presentations are more believable when they come from an expert’s mouth. And that’s why companies will pay the biggest bucks to get the biggest experts to read their slides.
Paying Doctors Who Already are Prolific Prescribers

From Chattanooga, Tennessee(7), came pulmonologist Daniel Smith's acknowledgment that the corporations choose speakers who they already know favor their products:
He emphasized that his use of GlaxoSmithKline's Advair inhaler began long before he started speaking for the company.

'The assumption is if the doctor didn't have the relationship, he wouldn't prescribe the medication,' he said.
Also, as reported from Des Moines, Iowa(8):
Several doctors said drug company representatives asked them to become paid speakers because sales records showed the physicians often prescribed the companies' products.

'They're like, 'We noticed you're using a lot of our drugs, would you mind telling other doctors why?' ' said [Sioux City internist Dr Mark] Carlson, who emphasized that he prescribes the medications he believes work best.
Furthermore, from New York City(9) :
First, the industry says it picks the doctors who are the most knowledgeable about the drugs. But [Dr Richard] Schloss said Pfizer first picked him because he was a high prescriber of Geodon.

'What they do is they get the pharmacy records, and they know who’s prescribing what,' said Schloss, 'and they can come in and say, ‘I see you’re prescribing, you know, a lot of, in this case, Geodon. What do you like about it?’ And you if say nice things, they say, ‘Will you be interested in speaking for us?’'
Payments Influence Behavior

Even though health care corporations may select speakers who already favor their products, probably to reinforce this pattern, that does not mean that such payments do not induce even more enthusiasm. From Chattanooga, Tennessee(7), obstetrician-gynecologist Kirk Brody
said he hasn't actually spoken on behalf of a drug company for eight years or so. He quit after one year when he realized the drugs he lectured about ended up popping into his head when it came time to prescribe, he said.

'I felt like it was probably influencing my prescription habits,' he said. 'If you're out there singing the praises of something, you tend to believe it. It was just an ethical problem.'
Also, from New York City(9):
[Dr Richard] Schloss said he agreed to be a speaker because he genuinely believes in Geodon, and he enjoys teaching. But even he admitted the speaking has actually changed the way he prescribes.

'You know, I may use Geodon maybe 10 percent more than I did before I was a speaker,' said Schloss. 'I use it 10 percent more because I’ve spoken about it so many times....'
"Push Poll"

From New Hampshire(1), Dr. Leonard Korn, president of the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society, described how the drug talks resembled a "push poll" (biased poll meant to sell a viewpoint)
'We sat there being educated by their people and they sent us a check,' he said, recalling the usual fee was about $500.

The doctors would then give feedback about the positive and negative aspects of a particular medication and of drugs made by competitors.

'It was a bit like a focus group ... except a focus group is not really promoting its product,' he said. 'This is much more like a push poll.'

His concern is that such events can influence doctors, even subconsciously, to choose that company's drug.
Why Hide the "Education?"

If the physicians' talks are educational, as some of the speakers and their corporate pay-masters assert, why should they be hidden from the media. However, as reported from Des Moines (Iowa)(8):
The companies say they favor openness. 'We believe transparency is critical to rebuilding trust in our industry, and Lilly seeks to continue to be a leading voice and example in transparency efforts in the biopharmaceutical industry,' said J. Scott MacGregor, a spokesman for Eli Lilly.

In that spirit, The Des Moines Register asked MacGregor and his counterparts at the other two leading companies to let a reporter observe one of their doctor-education sessions. All three declined.

'It would be inappropriate for you to attend an event,' AstraZeneca spokeswoman Katie Lubenow said. She said the sessions are open only to medical professionals.
Also, from New York City(9):
But for talks that are supposed to be purely educational, there seems to be a lot of secrecy. WNYC called the seven companies in the ProPublica database, and asked if it could observe a presentation. Each company declined. And none would send copies of their slides. [Columbia Unviersity urologist Franklin] Lowe wouldn’t provide a copy either. He said the slides were company property and he could get into trouble if he passed them out.
Physicians' Rationalizations for Getting Paid to Give Pharmaceutical Talks 

Denial: Industry Sponsored Talks are Educational

Despite the evidence above and elsewhere that pharmaceutical companies pay physicians to give talks to market their products, not to altruistically provide unbiased education, many physicians asserted what they were doing is educational. Those providing the rationalizations included high ranking academics. For example, from New Hampshire(1):
Dr. Craig L. Donnelly, chief of the child psychiatry section at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said he views such appearances as part of his mission to educate the next generation of physicians.

Donnelly is the second-highest earner on Pro Publica's list for New Hampshire, earning $136,578 from Eli Lilly in 2009 and the first quarter of 2010.

When he gives talks, Donnelly said in an e-mail, he advocates not for one particular drug but for a "full range of treatment options," including non-pharmacological ones.

'When I speak to colleagues, I am putting my reputation on the line,' he said. 'I genuinely believe that these talks provide educational value to my colleagues in primary care, above and beyond the informational component on the particular drug topic.'

Denial:  Physicians are Not Chosen to Speak Because they Favor the Product

Despite the evidence above and elsewhere that corporations pick physician speakers who already favor their products, from San Francisco, California(10), former Stanford faculty member psychiatrist Manoj Waikar said:
he does not disclose what drugs he prescribes to pharmaceutical companies so they hire him for his expertise, not because of his prescribing patterns.
He seemed unaware that the companies already have easy access to data about his prescribing habits.

Rationalization: The Need for "Collaboration" Implies the Need to Get Paid for Marketing

Furthermore, even academics who were uncomfortable with industry supported talks recited the mantra that academic-industrial "collaboration" is needed to provide "innovation." This begs the question of why such "collaboration" needs to include payments by industry to academia for marketing, or in fact any activities other than pure research. For example, from an article specifically about the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire(2), Dr James L. Bernat, a DHMC neurologist and chairman of the bioethics committee,
said the relationship between medicine and industry can be 'synergistic and useful' for both groups. But he said, 'There are potential conflicts of interest that can occur ... that need to be identified, mitigated and prevented.'
Also, co-chair of the hospital's integrity and ethics task force Dr. Carl DeMatteo, an infectious-disease physician and chief quality and compliance officer,
said academic physicians who share their research with pharmaceutical or medical-device companies 'can bring forward treatments and cures to the public that can make a real difference in people's lives.'

The latter, of course, is mainly an argument for publication and dissemination of basic science research, not for academic physicians working with drug, device or other companies on evaluating the products those companies have a vested interest in, much less involving academics in marketing.

Universities are always promoting academic-industrial collaboration, but never seem to explain why such collaboration requires academics to be paid to give talks, or for that matter, for ill-defined consulting work.  They talk about the benefits of research as a monolithic whole, rarely explaining why it is good for industry to sponsor and control human research meant to evaluate the products in which companies have vested interests.

Reasoning from a Biased Sample: Multiple Conflicts as De-Biasing

Physicians asserted that being paid by multiple corporations is reduces bias in favor of a particular drug, ignoring the possibilities that multiple conflicts of interest might bias in favor of expensive drugs vs generics, in favor of drug therapy vs other approaches, or even in favor of aggressive vs conservative therapy. For example, from Erie, Pennsylvania(3), a report quoted Dr Gurjaipal Kang,
'I don't feel there is a conflict of interest,' Kang said. 'I speak for competing drug companies. I speak about some drugs that I don't often prescribe.'
Also, from Vancouver, Washington(4), a quote from Dr Jeffrey L Hansen, psychiatrist:
'I don’t believe it influences my prescribing practices because I work with a number of companies,' Hansen said. 'I want to make sure that no matter who’s sponsoring my speaking the message is the same.'

Denial: Conflicts of Interest Do Not Influence Behavior

Many doctors simply asserted that being paid to give a talk does not influence their prescribing. This begs the question of whether they were hired to speak to reinforce their pre-existing preference for the products of their employers. It also seems to simply deny that financial incentives matter, a position supported by common sense, and underlying essentially all of economics. For example, from Syracuse, New York(5), the chief of urology at Crouse Hospital, said
'Morally my goal is to treat the patient with the best medications I know of,' Albala said. 'I find it hard to believe some people would write a (prescription for) a medication just because they are a speaker.'

'I would be happy to do these gratis,'....

Note, of course, that despite the last assertion, he was apparently even happier to get paid. Dr Albala was the top recipient of drug company honoraria in the Syracuse region, getting $180,200 from GlaxoSmithKline.

False Dilemma: If It is Not Illegal, It Must be Good

An old argument in politics and business is the assertion that one's behavior is good as long as one has not been convicted of a crime.  An analogous argument made by physicians is to claim that compliance with local administrative processes certifies one's actions as ethical. For example, from Durham, North Carolina)(6), Duke Medicine oncologist David Rizzieri,
asked whether the substantial sums he has received from drug companies could lead to ethical issues, Rizzieri replied, 'I respect this concern and feel the multiple layers of oversight and conflict of interest management planning ... help assure appropriate application and presentation of the data.
Rationalization: Entitlement

Physicians may feel that because of the hardships they have endured, especially during training, they are entitled to be rewarded, apparently no matter what the circumstance. So, from Durham, North Carolina,(6) a medical student noted:
There is certainly a sense that once you go through medical school and you go through residency, you're kind of entitled to these gifts from industry, or to be paid well enough for speaking

Also, from Chattanooga, Tennesse(7), local pulmonologist Daniel Smith sarcastically asserted:
We're considered experts in our field. I guess we're supposed to spend hours and hours of time educating other doctors for free
This, of course, begs the question of who should be paying.

Appeal to Common Practice: Pharmaceutical Paid Talks are Part of the Culture

Some in the academic world seemed to assert that since the talks are common practice, they must continue.  From Durham, North Carolina(6), Ross McKinney, director of Duke's Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine, said
the new policies will also have to consider the existing culture among doctors.

'It is hard to set restrictions when that is the existing culture. This isn't the Mayo Clinic where everybody is just a salaried employee,'....

There is a growing body of evidence that pharmaceutical companies, and presumably other for-profit health care corporations, may pay physicians to give talks to help market their products, not to altruistically support unbiased education.  Physicians may command more respect than sales people.  The companies may choose those who are already known to favor their products.  While the speakers may influence other physicians, payments to them may reinforce, if not enhance their favorable stance towards the companies' products.  The setting of the talks may be designed to favor their marketing purpose.  Pharmaceutical companies and the physicians they pay may be wary of letting skeptics witness these talks because they have the above considerations to hide.

However, it seems that many physicians who give the talks, and sometimes the academic institutions with which they are affiliated, are in denial about the nature of these talks.  They are quick to rationalize what they do, sometimes with the help of logical fallacies.

I submit that physicians and health professionals should shun commercially sponsored talks as deceptive marketing.  Physicians who give such talks are at best naive, and at worst complicit in the deception.  Deceptive marketing is never good, but is particularly upsetting and dangerous when it is used to sell products that have serious health consequences. 

ADDENDUM (24 November, 2010) - See this related post by Dr Howard Brody on the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma blog.


1.  Wickham SE. Three Doctors paid $100,000-plus by drug companies. New Hampshire Union-Leader, Nov 8, 2010.  Link here.
2. Wickham SE. Dartmouth-Hitchcock takes fresh look at such payments. New Hampshire Union Leader, Nov 8, 2010. Link here.
3. Bruce D. Drug companies pay Erie doctors to speak about their drugs, devices. Erie (Pennsylvania) Times-News, Nov 8, 2010. Link here
4. Lasher B. Pharmaceutical industry spends millions on doctors: Clark County doctors got $190,000 over 18 months. Vancouver (Washington) Columbian, Nov 7, 2010. Link here.
5. Mulder JT. Drug makers pay 51 central New York doctors nearly $1 million to talk about their products. Syracuse (New York) Post-Standard, Nov 7, 2010. Link here.
6. Chen M. 'Dollars for Docs' hits home. Durham (North Carolina) Herald-Sun, Nov 13, 2010. Link here.
7. Bregel E. Prescription for concern: pharmaceutical companies' payments to doctors raise questions amid soaring U. S. drug costs. Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times- Free Press. Nov 14, 2010. Link here.
8. Leys T. 121 Iowa physicians collect from drug firms. Des Moines (Iowa) Register, November 14, 2010. Link here.
9. Chang A. Physicians on pharma's payroll: educators or marketers? WNYC, November 18, 2010. Link here.
10. Colliver V. Disciplined doctors receiving pharmaceutical funds. San Francisco (California) Chronicle. Nov 18, 2010. Link here.


Anonymous said...

The Nov. 16, 2010 WSJ story Pfizer Sets Pact With University highlights the arrangement Pfizer will have with UCSF to bring promising drugs to market.

One really has to question the impact $85,000,000.00 over five years will have on the research and results of this collaboration. From my prospective, having such a large influx of cash will certainly color the results of any research and in an effort to promote the partnership UCSF will be very generous with positive spin in an effort to continue this cash stream.

Steve Lucas

Nancy Wilson said...

From The Dallas Morning News:

"Why should the pharmaceutical industry be paying money to any group of doctors to shill for them, which is basically what's going on here?" [Dr. Howard Brody] said. "Why shouldn't the public distrust any doctor who is in this kind of thing?"

McNeill, R and Martinez MT. Doctors disciplined by Texas earn money from drug firms, records show. The Dallas (Texas) Morning News. Nov 18, 2010. Link here:


Live it or live with it said...

The activities of doctors (and yes ivory tower researchers) are a reflection of the institutional focus on cash flow. No grant = no job, low patient volume = being replaced by someone who will play ball in the environment.

Why is it that these items have to be funded externally? Isn't part of the mission to do research and education? Is it because all of the 'free' money has been eaten up by the administration?