Friday, August 21, 2009

Another Haunting Tale

Halloween is more than two months away, but the ghost stories just keep on coming. The latest version was reported by the Associated Press (with a hat tip to Prof Margaret Soltan on the University Diaries blog). To quickly summarize,

Drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline used a sophisticated ghostwriting program to promote its antidepressant Paxil, allowing doctors to take credit for medical journal articles mainly written by company consultants, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press.

An internal company memo instructs salespeople to approach physicians and offer to help them write and publish articles about their positive experiences prescribing the drug.

Known as the CASPPER program, the paper explains how the company can help physicians with everything from 'developing a topic,' to 'submitting the manuscript for publication.'

The actual document is now available from the PharmaGossip blog here. Reviewing that document suggests that the CASPPER program was a bit different from other ghost-writing schemes (for example, see previous posts here.)

A typical ghost-writing scheme would entail ghost-writers employed by a medical education and communications company (MECC) drafting manuscripts of a scholarly-appearing review articles. The articles would be written to support the marketing of a product made by the (usually pharmaceutical) company which hired the MECC. Then, the MECC would recruit well-known medical academics as (guest) authors for the articles. The guest authors might make some minor revisions in the draft manuscripts, which would then be submitted to scholarly journals. The MECCs would handle the submission process, while maintaining the pretense that the articles were the work of the guest academic authors. The ultimate purpose of such schemes apparently would be to market the product in the guise of scholarly publication.

CASSPER, on the other hand, was meant to produce more modest articles, ostensibly written by practicing, rather than purely academic physicians. Review of the CASSPER document leads to some interesting conclusions about the project

- The project was purely a marketing project. "The objectives of CASSPER, from a publication standpoint, are to strengthen the product positioning and overcome competitive issues." The document clearly was written by marketers, and directed to pharmaceutical representatives ("drug reps.") It did not mention any involvement by GSK scientific or medical personnel. The closest it came to making a pretense about any scientific or clinical usefulness of the project was, "publication of such articles will benefit the sales force by expanding the database of published data to support PAXIL."

- It was as much about promoting closer relationships among pharmaceutical representatives ("drug reps") and doctors as about publishing articles. The project was to be implemented by drug reps, and "your participation will establish and/or strengthen your relationships with key physicians and thought leaders in the psychiatric field." The drug reps would handle, and presumably shape all communications between their physicians and the MECC.

- Articles were to arise from instigation by the drug reps, rather than from physicians' initiatives. For example, a scenario for recruiting authors began, "a physician tells you that he or she has had treatment success with PAXIL in certain indications or difficult-to-treat patient populations." Then, "ask the physician if any consideration has been given to publishing a case study based on this clinical experience."

- Although the document is somewhat ambiguous about the role of the putative author in the process, an extensive list of services available from the MECC (Complete Healthcare Communications [CHC] ) would have left little for the author to do. "The full range of editorial assistance that CASSPER can offer contributing physicians includes: developing a topic, coordinating the editorial review process, submitting to the target journal." The company's role would include "coordinating" manuscript preparation, which was defined as "development of an outline and first draft, editorial reviews, and revisions." The company would make available "published literature, available internal support, literature search results, and a database of journal submission criteria." Also, "the numerous details that CHC is prepared to coordinate ... [include] copy editing and proofreading, production of tables and graphics, preparation of the submission package, and follow-up."

So CASSPER seems to be a not really so friendly example of a newly recognized species of ghost-writing, targeted more at promoting relationships among drug reps and physicians than at producing ostensibly scholarly articles. Nonetheless, this example of the haunting of medicine is as fundamentally deceptive as previously described ghost-writing schemes. In the CASSPER project, physicians would be reduced to little more than ectoplasm, goaded by drug reps into token involvement in a writing process exclusively handled by the MECC, and mediated by the friendly appearing drug reps. I wonder whether physicians who participated escaped with any psychological independence from the drug reps who magically turned them into acclaimed "published authors?"

In any case, the disclosure of CASSPER, a ghost who was friendly only in appearance, adds more evidence about how deception and dishonesty now haunts our health care system. To achieve real health care reform, we will have to find a new group of ghost-busters. Who you gonnna call?

ADDENDUM (25 August, 2009) - See also comments by Dr Howard Brody in the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma Blog.

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