The complaint centered around students being provided a book on managing chronic pain that was funded and copyrighted by the maker of the prescription pain killer OxyContin. The book had been brought in by a non-faculty lecturer with financial ties to the drug company.
It turned out that:
From 2002 to 2006, the pain course was funded by donations, included $117,000 in unrestricted educational grants from four drug companies -- Merck-Frosst, Purdue Pharma, Pharmacia Canada and Pfizer -- although they had no input into course content. Since 2007, the program has been funded solely from faculty budgets.
[Dean of Dentistry Dr David] Mock said Purdue's copyrighted book on pain management had been brought in by Dr. Roman Jovey, an unpaid guest lecturer and co-author of the book who left copies 'for anyone to take.' Jovey, medical director for a chain of clinics called the Centres for Pain Management, is a member of Purdue's speakers' bureau, paid by the company to conduct workshops and lectures.
Dr Jovey defended handing out the free book produced by his part-time employer:
Jovey confirmed he had left copies of the 371-page book, entitled 'Managing Pain: The Canadian Health Care Professionals Reference,' for students.
'It was a gift from Purdue. I'm not at all embarrassed or ashamed. I think it's a darn good book.
"If we all want to be politically correct and have the appearance of being politically correct, then I guess I get it, that nothing that has any kind of pharma logo or name or ownership should be given out to medical students,' he said Wednesday.
'But the losers are the medical students because I think it's a high-quality book, it's very readable and they're deprived of it this year because of this controversy. And I guess they will be in the future.'
However, it appeared that the "darn good" book's content was biased in favor of Purdue's product, Oxycontin:
Dr. Irfan Dhalla said he has concerns about the content of the book, which a medical student taking the course brought to his attention.
'There are definitely things that are not consistent with the evidence,' said Dhalla, a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital and a lecturer at the university. 'For example, oxycodone ... is listed as a moderate-potency opioid, when I think everybody agrees it's a very strong opioid, up to twice as strong as morphine.'
While it's appropriate to prescribe oxycodone for severe acute pain or cancer pain, Dhalla said the book suggests that physicians can prescribe the drug for chronic non-cancer pain with relative safety for the patient.
'And I think people with experience know that that is just not the case. When you prescribe to people with chronic non-cancer pain, it's very difficult to do that safely,' he said, noting that the book pays little attention to issues of addiction and deaths from overdose.
'The book in several places makes reference to a claim that the rates of addiction if opioids are used for chronic non-cancer pain are very low. And they're not nearly as low as is claimed in the book.'
In fact, a study by Dhalla and colleagues published last year showed prescription rates for opioids -- including OxyContin, a long-acting form of oxycodone -- soared in Ontario over the last two decades, as did the number of deaths linked to the narcotic.
A subsequent inquiry has recommended revising the curriculum and dispensing with the drug company funded book.
This is another example of how marketing has infiltrated medical education. It suggests that market influenced education likely includes not only opinions in favor of the specific product being marketed, but distortions of fact to support the product that are hardly evidence-based.
Furthermore, it shows how conflicts of interest facilitate marketing influenced medical education. Note that the bringer of the biased textbooks in this case was being paid honoraria to speak on behalf of the pharmaceutical company, but presumably not to teach the particular course in question. However, his enthusiasm readily carried over to his work in that course.
We have discussed how pharmaceutical marketers regard the "key opinion leaders" whom they pay to speak as salespeople. One would expect salespeople to be enthusiastic for their product even outside of their normal working hours. In my humble opinion, this is why no medical academic should be allowed to simultaneously be a commercially paid "key opinion leader."
By the way, note that this case also suggests how the issues we discuss on Health Care Renewal are relevant globally, not just to the US. I tend to be wary of blogging about cases in other countries, since there may be subtle difference in context across countries that might make interpretation of cases more difficult when viewing them from abroad. However, I think that the facts and language here are straightforward enough for me to be fairly confident about what was going on. Nonetheless, if any Canadian think I have got this wrong, please let me know.
Meanwhile, if anyone is blogging about similar issues from beyond the US shores, please let me know so I can add their work to our blog roll.
Hat tip to Prof Margaret Soltan on the University Diaries blog.