In his post of Wed 18 May, Roy Poses commented on the PLoS article by former BMJ editor Richard Smith opining that medical journals have been co-opted into Big Pharma's marketing system. Coincidentally, the BMJ reports that the CEO of Merck has resigned, in a move widely seen as a response to the increasingly damaging disclosures about Merck's marketing of Vioxx (though Merck of course denies any connection).
Merck's campaign for marketing Vioxx was clearly a campaign of deliberate deception, with intensive training of detail reps in specific techniques for misleading physicians about the benefits and concealing the risks of the drug. Should we be surprised? No, not really. Consider what is at stake for any drug company marketing a new agent. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into its development. Even though the company itself probably hasn't paid for much if any of the actual basic science or discovery, the development of someone else's discovery to marketability costs a bloody fortune. There's no predicting whether it'll be a big seller, a market mediocrity, or a fiasco that proves dangerous but only after all the costs are incurred.
When big money is at stake, people will lie. It's human nature. Are they "bad people"? No, they're people. As the Milgrom experiment and others showed, and WWII gruesomely illustrated, the majority of people can convince themselves that literally anything - no matter how abhorent - is OK. We vastly underestimate in our usual thinking how readily people will believe what's in their interest to believe. Not just a few "bad apples", but the majority of normal people. Further, those few who are squeamish about fibbin' a bit in marketing the product are selected out at low rungs on the corporate ladder in Big Pharma. The upshot is that we just plain have to assume that Big Pharma will lie. Not because they're evil, but because they're humans in a system where extremely strong incentives exist to do so.
So what do we do? Well, we could propose that drug development be placed in the hands of neutral foundations or some similar arrangment that divorces self-interest from the product. Personally, I doubt that will work well though. The nice thing about self-interest is that it really motivates people. Only self-interest will reliably make the majority of people really work hard. Folks just naturally coast a bit if they don't have skin in the game. (You don't need to point to the economic failure of communism to illustrate that point; just check out any organization that has no competitors. Go down to the Secretary of State's office to get your driver's license paperwork, for example.)
So it's time we formally and clearly recognized that doctors and their patients vs. Big Pharma is an adversary relationship. Like prosecutors and defense attorneys, we need each other and society needs us both, but like any good defense attorney we're nuts to trust anything the prosecutor says. (The metaphor is apt, sadly, as the shocking number of falsely convicted men freed from death row or life imprisonment over the last decade demonstrates.) If we want to do the best for our patients, we need to behave adversarially toward Big Pharma. Don't socialize; assume an ulterior motive; if given a paper "proving benefit" look for how it might have been fudged or find out how many negative papers are being kept out of view; never believe industry-funded clinical trials; assume risks are being downplayed and benefits overplayed.
An adversary relationship will put a real crimp in the incomes of quite a few physicians who are used to taking drug money. It'll also raise some serious financing issues for CME, but it's time those came out on the table anyway. Patients deserve much more aggressive protection of their interests than our profession's cozy relationship with Big Pharma has provided. Time to un-cozy.