Thursday, August 27, 2015

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave - Duke and UNC Allegedly Agreed Not to Hire Each Other's Faculty

We have intermittently discussed the worsening plight of physicians trying to provide clinical care as employees of large organizations.  Such corporate physicians are likely to be squeezed between professional values that put the patient first, and management that puts revenue first.   Physicians employed by large corporations may find their values increasingly at risk as these organizations adapt the tactics of the robber barons.

Now it appears that even ostensibly genteel academic medical institutions may be adapting these tactics.

Allegations of Anti-Competitive Faculty Employment Practices at Duke and University of North Carolina Medical Schools

The story first appeared with little fanfare in the (Duke) Chronicle in June.  An assistant professor at the UNC School of Medicine was interested in a position, also at the assistant professor level, at nearby Duke.

[Dr Danielle] Seaman had been in email communication with UNC’s Chief of Cardiothoracic Imaging beginning in 2011, when she expressed interest in a radiology position at the UNC School of Medicine, and the chief of the division encouraged her to apply, the case file describes. In 2012, Seaman was invited to visit the campus and toured the radiology department at UNC.


When Seaman expressed interest in the assistant professor position again in early 2015, however, the chief responded in an email by saying he had just received confirmation that 'lateral moves of faculty between Duke and UNC are not permitted' as per a 'guideline' set by the schools’ deans.

In a later email, the chief also described to Seaman the reason the agreement was created—Duke had tried several years ago to recruit the entire bone marrow transplant team from UNC, and UNC was forced to pay them a large retention package to keep them.
Both emails are included in the filing by Dr Seaman's lawyers.

Imagine the nerve of medical faculty thinking they should be paid more by the current employer because another institution was willling to recruit them and pay them that much.
An Agreement Comfortable for the Deans, but Disadvantageous for Their Faculty

An August article in the Chronicle suggested that the top leaders of the two medical schools felt that the "no-poaching" agreement was mutually beneficial. 

According to the case file, Seaman became aware of the policy earlier this year, but the UNC chief of cardiothoracic imaging—who is unnamed in the file—believed the policy had been in place for several years after Duke had previously tried to recruit the entire bone marrow transplant team from UNC.

'The general rule was that we didn’t recruit there and they didn’t recruit at Duke—it certainly was in the years I was in the administration,' said John Burness, former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations from 1991 to 2008. 'I don’t know if it’s ever been a formal agreement, but it’s certainly been a practice over a long period of time.'

Burness—now a visiting professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy—noted that he could not recall an instance in which a faculty member from UNC was recruited to Duke during Nannerl Keohane’s tenure as president of the University from 1993 to 2004. Keohane also confirmed that during her time as president the University avoided poaching of UNC faculty.


'The question of whether Duke and UNC [or N.C. State] should attempt to recruit faculty from the other campus was always somewhat delicate,' Keohane, now Laurance S. Rockefeller distinguished visiting professor of public affairs at Princeton University, wrote in an email.

The Chronicle found a Duke Law professor who provided a comfortable rationale for the agreement between the two schools,

Despite the case file’s claims that such a policy is detrimental to faculty from both schools, Clark Havighurst—a former professor in the Duke University School of Law who taught healthcare policy and antitrust law for more than 40 years—also believes that this agreement would be beneficial to both institutions in the long run.

'You’d probably find relatively few instances where Duke and Carolina have poached each other’s faculty,' Havighurst wrote in an email. 'This is probably a matter of mutual restraint as much as explicit agreement, however, as each school or department would hesitate to irritate the faculty at the neighboring institution, thus undermining collegial and personal relations that are undoubtedly beneficial to each.'

What the soothing words about mutual benefit and collegiality leave out is that while the school administrations benefit from less disruption, they also likely benefited by being able to pay their faculty, especially junior faculty less. As Dr Seaman argued in her filing, as per the June Chronicle article,

The suit—filed June 9 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina—contends that the no-hire agreement had the “intended and actual effect” of suppressing competition and employee wages, therefore violating federal and state anti-trust laws.

An Aside, the Non-Poaching Agreement Defended by One of the Key Advocates for Market Fundamentalism in Medicine

As an aside, Professor Havinghurst turns out to be one of key architects of the transformation of the US health care from a regulated system emphasizing health care provided by individual professionals and small non-profit institutions to our current laissez faire commercialized system.  It is more than ironic that while Prof Havinghurst now scoffs at applying anti-trust law to alleged collusion by big employers, per M Gregg Bloche in the Stanford Law Review(1),

Since the mid- 1970s, market-oriented scholars have challenged a broad range of legal principles previously assumed to sustain the trustworthiness of physicians and health systems. Doctrines shielding physicians from antitrust law, insulating them from insurers' and hospitals' influence over clinical practice, and reinforcing the precept of undivided clinical loyalty to patients came under attack as protection for the medical profession at consumers' expense. These scholars, including Clark Havighurst, Richard Epstein, and Mark Hall, urge contractual ordering of clinical standards of care; relationships among physicians, hospitals, and health care payers; and physicians' conflicting obligations to patients, payers, and other third parties.

Again, Havinghurst appears to have been one of the principal, if not the principal advocate to use anti-trust law against small groups of physicians, and against the notion that physicians can promulgate their own codes of ethical conduct.  In an introduction to an article by Havinghurst in Health Affairs in 1983.(2)
For a decade or more, Clark Havighurst has been a philosophical thorn in the side of organized medicine, preaching a view of the health sphere that rejects decision making by professional self-regulation in favor of a system based on marketplace principles.
Note that in retrospect, this article seemed to stake out Health Affair's position as an important organ to promote market fundamentalism in health care. 

How convenient that Prof Havinghurst is still affiliated with Duke and in a position to defend his university's treatment of other faculty.

I urge you to scan Health Care Renewal to see how the change from professional self-regulation of ethics to the free rein of the laissez faire marketplace turned out. Look here for our first reporting on the late Dr Arnold Relman's discussion of how medicine was pressured to accept commercialization, and how that acceptance has since decimated our core values.  Look here for our discussion of the fallacy of the perfect market in health care.  Look here for a rebuttal from an authority we do  not often quote of the concept of health care as a commodity versus a calling. 


Note that the outcome of the lawsuit against Duke and UNC is unknown.  The allegations it makes are not proven.  However, I chose to discuss it because the evidence, particularly the emails reproduced in the court filing, seems pretty strong that the two schools did have an actual agreement not to compete in the hiring of faculty, and the argument that his suppressed faculty wages and opportunity is prety strong and obvious.

Academic physicians, particularly at elite institutions, may feel they are in a rarefied atmosphere separate from the hurley burley or everyday health care.  They may feel they are protected from, and can even ignore the health care dysfunction we discuss on Health Care Renewal.  They certainly may not think of themselves as "wage slaves" from the era of trusts, monopolies, and robber barons.

But this case exhibits that academic medical institutions are getting closer to the ruthless world of poorly regulated, commercialized, market fundamentalist health care.  Talk about collegiality is nice, but it seems pretty clear that the "non-poaching" agreement between Duke and UNC may have reflected collegiality among top medical school leadership, but limited their faculty salaries and individual faculty members' choices and opportunities.  This seems like another example, however soft spoken and genteel, of the leaders of health care organizations putting the interests of their own ingroup ahead of the interests of the larger organizations and the mission they are supposed to serve.

It is time for even academic physicians to realize that they are not protected from the troubles of the larger world.  If they truly believe in their professional values, if they really care about patients' and the public's health, and about medical and health care science and education, they will have to start speaking up, or they will end up wage slaves of the new health care robber barons along with nearly everyone else.   

To lighten things up at the end, the Eagles doing Hotel California live in 1977 -

"We are all prisoners here, of our own device"

1.  Bloche MG. Trust and betrayal in the medical marketplace.  Stanford Law Review 2002; 55: 919-954.  Link here.
2.  Havinghurst C. The doctors' trust.  self-regulation and the law.  Health Affairs 1983; 2: 64-76.  Link here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Real Dark Side of Health Care: Health Care Corruption

The editors of the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine just stated they they were shocked, shocked to find out that physicians occasionally express disrespect for patients when the patients cannot hear or see them.  The occasion was an editorial signed by three editors whose title included the phrase, "shining a light on the dark side of health care."(1)  The editorial referred to an anonymous narrative that recounted two incidents from the past.(2)

Two Alleged Incidents of Physicians' Expression of Disrespect for Patients

The first incident, discussed second hand, was of a obstetrician who made a sexist comment about a patient, who was under anesthesia, presumably unconscious, and being prepared for surgery.  The second incident, presumably less recent, was of an obstetric/gynceology resident who, after performing an emergency procedure that saved a woman from potentially fatal acute hemmorhage, performed an impromptu dance routine that appeared to disrespect the patient's ethnicity, until stopped by the anesthesiologist who issued a profance rebuke.

The names of the people involved, the hospitals in which these incidents occurred, and even the years when they happened are unknown.  The Annals did not publish anything suggested their veracity was corroborated.

There was no apparent harm to or direct effect on any patient as a result of either incident.  Of course, both alleged incidents suggested very disrespectful expression by the two physicians.  Their actions appeared unprofessional.

The Editorial Reaction

As noted above, the editorial called the incidents examples of medicine's "dark side."  It further said they may make "readers' stomachs churn," referred to "medicine's dark underbelly," and "repugnant behavior," and characterized the narrative as "disgusting and scandalous," and having the potential to "damage the profession's reputation."  The editorial characterized the the behavior of the obstetrician in the first incident as "highly disrespectful," and said it "reeked of misogyny and disrespect," while the second "reeked of all that plus heavy overtones of sexual assault and racism." 

That is certainly extreme language.  The editors appeared shocked, shocked that any physician could ever express disrespect for a patient, even when the patient could not possible be aware of that.  Nonetheless, of course, the behavior alleged to have occurred was certainly inappropriate and unprofesional, and cannot be condoned.

The Media Reaction

The two articles got considerable publicity, and media coverage also made the incidents out to be extremely sordid, using words like,"disturbing," "astonishing," "unsavory," (albeit also "boorish,") (LA Times); "criminal," "vulgarity," (MedPage Today); "appalling," "troubling," (NY Times); and  "misogynistic," "abhorrent," (US News and World Report).  I must note that some of the news coverage did reflect doubts that the two Annals of Internal Medicine articles represented some horrendous catastrophe, raising issues such as the humanness of doctors, so that some may be "prone to sociopathy and criminality;" the stress of some medical emergencies leading to letting off steam, or poor attempts at humor; and doubts about the representativeness and validity of the two alleged anecdotes.

Nonetheless, it seemed to me that the Annals articles and the media coverage did suggest an impending crisis due to the sordid behavior of perhaps numerous doctors, and at least the tone of the media coverage they provoked suggested the need for immediate action.

Was the Outrage Justified?

However, first keep in mind that these two incidents involved two individual doctors, one a trainee.  There are approximately 800,000 physicians in the US.  They are human.  Is it any surprise that some are "bad apples," and that others occasionally behave badly?  There is nothing in the two articles to suggest that these incidents reflected more organized, systemic actions.

Furthermore, the articles seemed to ignore the fact that mechanisms, perhaps not flawless, are already in place to address unprofessional behavior by physicians, even if no one involved in the published narrative may have used them.  In the US, physicians are subject to discipline from state licensing boards.  They may be reported to those boards for unprofessional behavior.  The boards can sanction physicians in a variety of ways, up to and including permanent loss of license.  Both alleged incidents apparently occurred in teaching hospitals.  Attendings and residents at teaching hospital must answer to department chairs, medical school deans and hospital staffs.  So mechanisms for policing such behavior exist, even if they may have not been used in this case.  A look at state medical board websites reveals that that physicians are often sanctioned for bad behavior that disrespects or even endangers patients. 

Finally, the Annals of Internal Medicine used very strong language, involving churning stomachs, reeks of misogyny, sexual assault, and racism, dark underbellies, etc.  Was this a proportionate response to two anonymous cases that did not involve allegations of direct patient harm?

The Real Dark Side

Readers of Health Care Renewal know that we often discuss systemic problems in health care, often involving the leadership of large health care organizations, that may produce real harms to patients' and the public's health, but for which no good policing mechanisms seem to exist.  Worse, these problems seem to be a taboo topic in health care policy discussions, and in medical journals, like the Annals of Internal Medicine.

In my humble opinion, the Annals' editorial outrage would ring less hollowly if it was accompanied by even greater outrage at such more extreme problems. 

Let me start with a recent example.

Example: the Anechoic AllTrials US Launch

Very recently we discussed how the launch of new US AllTrials initiative got almost no notice.  Specifically, even though a sponsor of the initiative is the American College of Physicians, that organization's publication, the Annals of Internal Medicine, did not comment on it.  (A search of the journal using the term AllTrials produced no results.)

However, the AllTrials initiative means to tackle the problem of suppressed clinical research.  We have long discussed how research may be systematically suppressed when its results do not please its commercial sponsors.  Particularly, trials of drugs or devices that do not produce favorable results may be suppressed by their sponsors, usually the companies that make the drugs or devices.  Such suppression breaks trust with and therefore hugely disrespects the patients who volunteered to participate in the trials, who believed they were contributing to science and public health.  Suppressing data that drugs and devices may be ineffective and harmful may endanger patients by letting them be treated by such drugs and devices in the illusory belief that they are safe.  Yet where is the outrage about such dishonest behavior by large and powerful health care organizations that disrespects, and more importantly, endangers patients?

Health Care Corruption

When a pharmaceutical, biotechnology, or device company withholds results of a clinical trial to makes its product look better and enhance its revenue, that is an example of health care corruption.

Transparency International defines corruption as

Abuse of entrusted power for private gain

When health care corporations run clinical trials, we entrust them to do honest research and be worthy of the trust of their research subjects.  Withholding the results to enhance revenue is therefore abuse of that entrusted power for private gain.

Health Care Corruption as a Taboo Topic

This blog focuses on the US, and we  now have in our archives some amazing stories that document various forms of health care corruption in the US, including numerous allegations of misbehavior by large health care organizations ending in legal settlements, and examples of outright fraud, bribery, kickbacks and other crimes.  Some large and profitable health care corporations have made numerous such settlements over recent years.  (For example, see the track record to date of Pfizer Inc here and that of Johnson and Johnson here.)

Much of this bad behavior was meant to sell drugs, devices, or clinical services, often in situations in which their benefits did not outweigh their harms.  For example, we just discussed the latest settlement by Amgen of allegations that it promoted an epoetin (Aranesp) "off-label" for cancer patients not on chemotherapy.  Such "misbranding" was not merely a technical violation, since it has been shown that use of the drug in this situation increases mortality.   Such bad behavior thus likely harmed numerous patients.

Furthermore, efforts to police these kinds of corruption have been weak and scattered.  Most cases have ended with legal settlements that at most involve fines to corporations, yet the fines are rarely big enough to significantly affect their overall revenues.  While the corporations themselves may be thus punished, the people who actually authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior are usually unscathed.  So as we have discussed frequently, such attempts at justice are unlikely to deter future bad behavior.

In fact, people more distinguished than yours truly have been warning about health care corruption for years. In particular, in 2006, the Transparency International Global Corruption Report focused on health care corruption, and asserted in its executive summary, " the scale of corruption is vast in both rich and poor countries."  It also noted how diverse is health care corruption:

In the health sphere corruption encompasses bribery of regulators and medical professionals, manipulation of information on drug trials, the diversion of medicines and supplies, corruption in procurement, and overbilling of insurance companies. It is not limited to abuse by public officials, because society frequently entrusts private actors in health care with important public roles. When hospital administrators, insurers, physicians or pharmaceutical company executives dishonestly enrich themselves, they are not formally abusing a public office, but they are abusing entrusted power and stealing precious resources needed to improve health.

It further stated how serious the consequences of corruption may be for patients and public health:

Corruption deprives people of access to health care and can lead to the wrong treatments being administered. Corruption in the pharmaceutical chain can prove deadly....

The poor are disproportionately affected by corruption in the health sector, as they are less able to afford small bribes for health services that are supposed to be free, or to pay for private alternatives where corruption has depleted public health services.

Corruption affects health policy and spending priorities.

Occasionally, something is published about health care corruption in the US in the medical literature.

- In 2009, qualitative interviews by Pololi et al in the Journal of General Internal Medicine produced many striking anecdotes suggesting corruption in US academic medicine. Four of the interviews were with faculty whose leaders allegedly used deception for personal and professional gain (i.e., “a situation of major unethical use of funding,” “fraudulently creating data for a research project,” “we’re lying to the people who are doing our school evaluations, we’re putting things on paper that we do that we don’t do,” “that’s what I think he felt he had to do—hide money, lie about money, or at least cook the books a little bit.”)(4)  These results produced few echoes, particularly not any strident editorials about the need to address corruption.
- In 2011, an article in the Lancet suggested that "there is more corruption in the G8 countries than in the whole of Africa," but for any health care professional to acknowledge that would be "professional suicide" (see this post).(3)
- Finally, in 2013, a Transparency International survey showed that 43% of Americans believe their health care system is corrupt.  Yet this received no media attention, and to my knowledge has never been mentioned in a major US medical journal.  (Look here.)

So health care corruption remains a largely taboo topic.  (On Health Care Renewal, we call corruption "anechoic," since evidence of health care corruption produces few echoes.) 

The Annals of Internal Medicine, like most major medical journals, has long avoided discussion of health care corruption, and how systemic corruption harms patients' and the public's health.

Of course, the unwillingness to discuss global health care corruption, health care corruption in the US, and the relationship of health care corruption in the US to corruption in other sectors may arise from the fear, as stated by one person interviewed in Charles Ferguson's documentary Inside Job, that discussion could lead to investigation, and investigation could "find the culprits".


It is perfectly fitting and proper for the Annals of Internal Medicine to call attention to various kinds of unprofessional behavior by physicians and health care professionals, such as sexist, disrespectful expression, even if such behavior is already subject to sanctions by medical boards, accrediting organizations, etc. In my humble opinion, however, if such disrespectful comments by physicians should generate outrage, corrupt behavior by large health care organizations that may harm patients and the public health, and which often goes largely unchallenged by civil authorities, should deserve more outrage.

Of course, it is one thing to criticize individual physicians, and ask physicians to "call out our colleagues" who behave unacceptably.

It is another to call out large, powerful, wealthy organizations and the executives who have become rich running them.  Such executives command well funded marketing and public relations departments, and corps of attorneys ready to take on perceived critics.

But if we really want better health care and public health, we all have to step up.  In particular, I urge the editors of the Annals of Internal Medicine, and other major health and medical journals to take on health care corruption as vigorously as they would take on physicians' expressions of "misogyny and disrespect."

ADDENDUM (26 August, 2015) - This post was republished on the Naked Capitalism blog

1.  Laine C, Taichman DB, LaCombe MA. On being a doctor: shining a light on the dark side.  Ann Intern Med 2015; 163: 320.  Link here.
2.  Anonymous.  Our family secrets.  Ann Intern Med 2015; 163: 321.  Link here.
3. Horton R. Offline: ten commandments, G8 corruption, and OBL. Lancet 2011; 377: 1638. Link here.
4. Pololi L, Kern DE, Carr P, Conrad P, Knight S. The culture of academic medicine: faculty perceptions of the lack of alignment between individual and institutional values. J Gen Intern Med. 2009;24:1289–95. Link here.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Once More with Feeling - Amgen Again Settles Allegations of Misbranding, But Why Bother?

The Latest Settlement

Biotechnology giant Amgen has just reached another settlement of allegations that it unfairly, deceptively or misleadingly marketed its drug. Per the Los Angeles Times,

Amgen Inc. has agreed to pay $71 million to settle allegations by 48 state attorneys general that it improperly marketed two of its blockbuster drugs.

That is,

The states, including California, alleged that Amgen violated consumer protection laws by promoting the use of its anemia drug Aranesp for longer periods than the Food and Drug Administration had approved and by encouraging its use to treat anemia caused by cancer without FDA approval.

In addition, Amgen was accused of promoting its drug Enbrel as a treatment for mild plaque psoriasis even though it was approved only for severe plaque psoriasis, and for overstating the length of time that Enbrel effectively treats the disease.

This is the second settlement Amgen has made for improper marketing of Aranesp.

Three years ago, Amgen pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor in federal court in New York for improperly marketing Aranesp. The drugmaker agreed to pay $150 million in criminal penalties and $612 million to resolve broader civil lawsuits, including allegations that Medicare, Medicaid and other government insurance programs were improperly billed.

At the time, federal prosecutors called the settlement 'the single largest criminal and civil False Claims Act settlement involving a biotechnology company in U.S. history.'

Although doctors can prescribe medications for off-label uses, drug companies are banned from promoting uses that aren't approved by the FDA, which has been at odds with some drugmakers over the issue.

This settlement seems to be just the latest in a very long procession of legal settlements  of allegations of apparent misbehavior by large health care organizations.  We have previously discussed many such settlements, how they serve as markers of ethical lapses by leaders of large organizations, and also how the failure of most of these settlements to provide meaningful penalties to those who presided over, directed, or implemented the bad behavior allows continuing impunity and fails to deter future bad behavior.  Many large organizations have made multiple such settlements in recent years, but have these settlements seem to have not promoted honest, transparent, accountable health care.   

Yet continuing government efforts to provide even these weak challenges to continuing bad behavior now appear under threat.

Is Misbranding a Crime?

The fundamental allegations in the original large Aranesp settlement were of misbranding (although the settlements with state government just announced were of violations of state laws prohibiting, as in the case of Connecticut, "unfair, deceptive or misleading" marketing practices.)  Marketing a drug or device for uses other than those approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be called "misbranding."

Whether misbranding should be considered a crime has lately become controversial.   Recently, an appeals court agreed with the notion that such marketing is constitutionally protected speech, as long as it is "truthful." (See discussion by Shannon Brownlee on the Lown Institute blog, and the NY Times news article.)  I am not a lawyer, so I will try not to deal with this constitutional argument at this time.  But most of the public discussion has focused on the narrow issue of whether misbranding is in fact protected free speech.

However, the case of the 'misbranding allegations agains Amgen suggest other issues worthy of consideration.

Promoting a Not Merely Ineffective, but Dangerous Drug

As we discussed here in 2012, Amgen pleaded guilty to one count of illegally marketing Aranesp, and agreed to pay a penalty of $762 million.  As we noted, the misbranding in this case was promotion of Aranesp for patients with cancer who were not receiving chemotherapy.  However, a growing collection of evidence suggested that epoetin drugs, a class in which Aranesp resides, increase the death rate in patients with various kinds of cancer.  On the other hand, Aranesp was never meant as a possible cure for cancer.  At best, its benefit is improvement of anemia, which might, just might improve how some patients feel in the short-term.  So it appears Amgen was promoting a dangerous drug without any evidence that the drug provided benefits that balanced the danger.  This appears very bad for patients.  The misbranding here was not some technical violation, but likely a deceptive effort that could have hurt patients, while profiting Amgen and its top executives.  The ethics here look much worse than the single guilty plea suggested.

Misbranding just refers to promoting a drug or device for uses that the FDA did not approve.  Some cases of misbranding could cause little more than inconvenience and added expense, but others could result in serious harm to patients.  Treating them all as misbranding removes important distinctions.

Allegations of Kickbacks

Furthermore, as discussed here in 2013, the 2012 settlement was not just about misbranding.  It was about kickbacks, that is bribes given to doctors by Amgen to induce them to prescribe a dangerous medication.  The settlement was arranged that Amgen did not admit to the alleged kicbkbacks.  But neither did it deny them, and the company apparently thought it was worth $762 million to avoid further dealing with these accusations, which nonetheless hang in the air.  So the ethics here now look even worse, invovling promoting a dangerous drug allegedly with bribery.

Furthermore, after news of the original Aranesp settlement came out, other stories of other settlements by Amgen appeared.  As we noted here,  in 2013, Amgen settled allegations that it also paid kickbacks to Omnicare and PharMerica to promote Amgen use in nursing homes and hospital.  It also settled charges that it inflated pricing data to obtain larger payments from Medicaid in multiple states for a variety of its drugs, including Aranesp.   Later in 2013, as we noted here, Amgen settled yet more charges that it gave kickbacks to doctors to promote one of its products, this time anti-cancer drug Xgeva.

Organizations accused of misbranding often are also accused of much worse conduct, yet very often, their cases are settled with the emphasis on the misbranding, leaving more serious allegations neither proven nor denied.  Focusing on misbranding may distract from more serious ethical, moral and legal violations.


In the case of Amgen, the large 2012 settlement for misbranding resulted in the only guilty plea made and the largest fine paid by the company.  From my informal perusal of legal settlements made by drug, biotechnology and device companies, misbranding seems to be one of the more frequent allegations, and often the only one resulting in admissions of guilt.  It may be that it is easier to prove misbranding than other charges, and companies may admit to misbranding in settlements because the charge is not well understood by the general public and hence may carry less of a stigma than other charges, for example, kickbacks or fraud.

Yet as noted above, while misbranding seems to connote a mere technical violation, in health care misbranding can mean patients hurt by dangerous treatments that did them little if any good.  Furthermore, companies that settle allegations of or even admit to misbranding often have been charged with lots of other bad behavior, but settlements are often set up so none of these other allegations is ever confirmed or refuted.  So settlements that focus on misbranding again may nullify questions about worse ethical problems.

Now whether misbranding is itself really a transgression seems to a legal question.  But perhaps the legal challenges to misbranding as a crime ought to evoke more than just a narrow defense of the legal concept.  Of course, declaring misbranding unconstitutional could result in even weaker enforcement actions against large and powerful health care corporations,  However, maybe the inherent weakness of misbranding charges ought to inspire some rethinking of what bad behavior in health care really deserves attention.

Should not aggressive marketing of a drug as tremendously effective and safe in situations in which the drug is either minimally or not at all effective (especially in terms of improving patient-centered outcomes) or not very safe be considered possible fraud, and prosecuted as such?  Should not alleged kickbacks and bribes given to health professionals and care giving organizations be prosecuted, rather than treated as civil disputes and settled?  Should not the people who actually appeared to have committed fraud, or given bribes be prosecuted, rather than just letting their employers escape with civil monetary penalties?  Should not the leaders of big organizations on whose watches fraud and bribery allegedly occurred be charged as responsible corporate officers (look here )?

If civil authorities were willing to stop regarding big health care organizations and their leaders as "too big to jail,"  maybe less mischief would be going on in health care.  And maybe that would lead to better care for patients and better health for the public. 

ADDENDUM (21 August, 2015) - This post was republished on the Naked Capitalism blog.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

With 10 Health Care Executives on it Board, US Chamber of Commerce Defends Big Tobacco Abroad

Tobacco, especially smoked in cigarettes, is generally recognized by health care professionals as having health hazards that greatly outweigh its benefits to society.  Therefore, most health care organizations discourage tobacco use, and many have developed tobacco free policies.

However, the tobacco industry has its powerful supporters.  A recent NY Times investigative report, and a report entitled "Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco," documented how the US Chamber of Commerce has defended the interests of tobacco companies overseas.  The apparent paradox here is that the leadership of the US Chamber of Commerce includes leaders of large health care organizations.  So far this paradox has not been explained by the parties involved.

How the US Chamber of Commerce Promotes Tobacco Interests Abroad

The NY Times Articles

On June 30, 2015, the NY Times published a wide ranging report on the pro-tobacco activities of the US Chamber of Commerce,

From Ukraine to Uruguay, Moldova to the Philippines, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its foreign affiliates have become the hammer for the tobacco industry, engaging in a worldwide effort to fight antismoking laws of all kinds, according to interviews with government ministers, lobbyists, lawmakers and public health groups in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

The U.S. Chamber’s work in support of the tobacco industry in recent years has emerged as a priority at the same time the industry has faced one of the most serious threats in its history. A global treaty, negotiated through the World Health Organization, mandates anti-smoking measures and also seeks to curb the influence of the tobacco industry in policy making. The treaty, which took effect in 2005, has been ratified by 179 countries; holdouts include Cuba, Haiti and the United States.

Facing a wave of new legislation around the world, the tobacco lobby has turned for help to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with the weight of American business behind it. While the chamber’s global tobacco lobbying has been largely hidden from public view, its influence has been widely felt.

Letters, emails and other documents from foreign governments, the chamber’s affiliates and antismoking groups, which were reviewed by The New York Times, show how the chamber has embraced the challenge, undertaking a three-pronged strategy in its global campaign to advance the interests of the tobacco industry.

In the capitals of far-flung nations, the chamber lobbies alongside its foreign affiliates to beat back antismoking laws.

In trade forums, the chamber pits countries against one another. The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, recently revealed that his country’s case against Australia was prompted by a complaint from the U.S. Chamber.

And in Washington, Thomas J. Donohue, the chief executive of the chamber, has personally taken part in lobbying to defend the ability of the tobacco industry to sue under future international treaties, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and several Pacific Rim nations.

'They represent the interests of the tobacco industry,' said Dr. Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, the head of the Secretariat that oversees the W.H.O treaty,...

The NYT asked the Chamber of Commerce for a response, and got only

The U.S. Chamber issued brief statements in response to inquiries. 'The Chamber regularly reaches out to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries, undermine their trademarks or brands, or destroy their intellectual property,' the statement said, adding, 'we’ve worked with a broad array of business organizations at home and abroad to defend these principles.'

The chamber declined to say if it supported any measures to curb smoking.

"Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco"

Two weeks after the first NY Times article, a group of nine organizations including Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Corporate Accountability International, and Public Citizen released a report on the US Chamber of Commerce pro-tobacco actions. A summary article in the Huffington Post written by representatives of the latter two organizations included,

Our report and a two-part New York Times investigation shows that, while the Chamber throws its weight around in many Global South countries to protect its corporate members' interests, Big Tobacco has also pushed it to adopt particularly aggressive and radical positions in order to undermine the cascade of public health laws being passed as a result of the success of the global tobacco treaty.

In particular,

For tobacco control advocates familiar with this deadly industry's tactics, the Chamber's work in this space comes as no surprise. Internal documents tell us that as the tobacco industry lost its public credibility, it began to use third parties to advocate on its behalf.

Case studies in our report, from Africa to Latin America, make it clear that Big Tobacco is doggedly pursuing this strategy with the U.S. Chamber and its affiliates in Global South countries. In countries the tobacco industry has targeted around the world, the Chamber is delivering threatening letters that cast doubt on the science behind tobacco control, exaggerating exaggerate the economic impacts repercussions of proven measures like tobacco taxation and crying wolf about explosions in illicit trade. In pursuing these actions, the Chamber and its AmCham affiliates are exporting well-documented tobacco industry tactics to block health laws around the globe.

And as the New York Times points out in its investigation, (and then advocates that countries resist in their recent editorial: Tarred by Tobacco), these tactics are in some cases drafted by Big Tobacco executives themselves.

Who Runs the US Chamber of Commerce?

A 2010 MotherJones article noted that the US Chamber of Commerce as having a "name that evokes Main Street and Little League teams," and its history of "taking a moderate, nonpartisan approach."  So who is responsible for the US Chamber of Commerce becoming a tobacco advocate, at least outside of the US?

First, the Chamber has become more the creature of the biggest corporations than small businesses.  The MotherJones article noted that recently

The Chamber's politics became synonymous with its biggest corporate donors.  [Chamber President Tom] Donohue established special accounts for companies that feared taking controversial public stands, allowing them to anonymously funnel money to the Chamber, which advocated on their behalf.


The Chamber claims that 96 percent of its members are small businesses, yet its self-seleted board includes just 6 representatives from small businesses, 1 from a local chamber, and 111 from large corporations.

Among these large corporations, tobacco corporations seem to be particularly influential.  The NY Times article noted,

The increasing global advocacy highlights the chamber’s enduring ties to the tobacco industry, which in years past centered on American regulation of cigarettes. A top executive at the tobacco giant Altria Group serves on the chamber’s board. Philip Morris International plays a leading role in the global campaign; one executive drafted a position paper used by a chamber affiliate in Brussels, while another accompanied a chamber executive to a meeting with the Philippine ambassador in Washington to lobby against a cigarette-tax increase. The cigarette makers’ payments to the chamber are not disclosed.

Yet the Chamber's governance also ostensibly includes health care viewpoints.  Its current board includes 10 member who are executives of large health care organizations:

- Richard Bagger Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs & Strategic Market Access, Celgene Corporation, [biopharmaceutical company] Summit, NJ
- John Cannon Executive Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer, Health Care Service Corporation, [health insurance company] Chicago, IL
- Ken W. Cole Senior Vice President, Government Relations, Pfizer, Inc., [pharmaceutical company] Washington, DC
- Wayne S. DeVeydt Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Anthem, Inc., [health insurance company, formerly Wellpoint] Indianapolis, IN
- Ralph de la Torre, MD Chairman and CEO, Steward Health Care System LLC, [for-profit hospital system, owned by Cerberus Capital Management] Boston, MA
- Fuad El-Hibri Executive Chairman, Emergent BioSolutions Inc. [biopharmaceutical company] Gaithersburg, MD
- Daniel F. Evans, Jr. President & Chief Executive Officer, Indiana University Health, [non-profit hospital system] Indianapolis, IN
- Gregory Irace President and Chief Executive Officer, Sanofi US Services Inc., [US subsidiary of French pharmaceutical company] Bridgewater, NJ
- Paul J. Klaassen Founder, Sunrise Senior Living, Inc., [for-profit provider of nursing care, hospice care, etc] Arlington, VA
- Elaine R. Leavenworth Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing and External Affairs Officer, Abbott Laboratories, [pharmaceutical and device company] Abbott Park, IL

These organizations ostensibly are all about promoting or sustaining individual or population health.  Executives of these organizations serving on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce are responsible for the governance and stewardship of the Chamber.  How could they square the missions of the organizations which the lead, and their responsibility for the Chamber's pro-tobacco stance?

The Health Care Organizations Dodge the Question

The answer to that question is elusive.

The NY Times article stated,

It is not clear how the chamber’s campaign reflects the interests of its broader membership, which includes technology companies like Google, pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and health insurers like Anthem.

An accompanying NY Times editorial added,

Health insurance and hospital companies that are members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Publicly, these companies support policies designed to reduce smoking, but the chamber, as Danny Hakim recently reported, has opposed anti-smoking measures around the world.

The controversy appears to have surprised health-related businesses like Anthem, one of the nation’s biggest health insurers, and Steward Health Care Systems of Boston, which have executives on the board of the chamber. 'If the chamber is in fact advocating for increased smoking, we do not agree with them on this public health issue,' a spokeswoman for Steward said in a statement to The Times.

In an article in the Indianapolis Business Journal, J K Wall recounted how he tried to get a substantive response to the NY Times article from Indiana University Health, whose President is on the Chamber board,

Indiana University Health CEO Dan Evans is one of the most anti-smoking health care executives I know.

Just a few months after I started covering health care for IBJ in 2007, Evans told me in an interview that Indiana employees 'should snatch the cigarettes out of their co-workers mouths and say, ‘Hey, you’re costing me money!’'

However, Evans was not available, and the only response was this statement from a spokesperson

We are proud of the many programs we have in place for smoking prevention and cessation, as well as health promotion and screenings for our team members, patients and members of the community. IU Health has been and will continue to be a leader in Indiana to prevent and curtail the use of tobacco products.

IU Health is a member of many diverse state and national organizations to support our public policy goals including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana State Chamber of Commerce. We are talking with U.S. Chamber leadership about the facts surrounding recent stories in the NY Times and will strongly encourage the U.S. Chamber to review its international programs to ensure they are consistent with its own stated policy to oppose smoking and promote wellness.

Similarly, a follow up story in the New York Times documented this response from Anthem, (formerly Wellpoint), whose Executive Vice President and CFO is on the Chamber board,

Anthem said it was 'dedicated to helping people quit smoking and has led the charge to end tobacco use.'

'Anthem has shared its strong, longstanding position with the chamber and will continue to address our concerns with the chamber directly,' the statement said.

Likewise, the Times noted this response from

Greg Thompson, a spokesman for the Health Care Service Corporation, said in a statement last week: 'We are convinced that ending smoking may help people live longer, enjoy a better quality of life and reduce costs in our health care system.'

'This is a point of view we have advocated for decades and made clear to organizations that we support.'

Those seem to be the only public responses from companies whose leadership is represented on the Chamber of Commerce board. They all ignored the main issue.  None of them seemed informed by the role their companies' executives on the Chamber of Commerce board play.  None of the executives or the companies for whom they worked acknowledged any accountability for the Board's vigorous foreign campaign of pro-tobacco activities.

The Times did note that Chamber of Commerce member CVS, which is not specifically represented on the Chamber board, and which recently stopped selling tobacco products, withdrew from Chamber membership. But as a simply a member of the Chamber, it had little direct responsibility for the Chamber's actions.


US health care is increasingly dominated by large organizations.  Most of these organizations like to portray themselves as warm and fuzzy supporters of individual and population health.  For example, Pfizer has a statement of responsibility which begins

As a member of today’s rapidly changing global community, we are striving to adapt to the evolving needs of society and contribute to the overall health and wellness of our world.

Anthem's statement includes

Anthem is dedicated to delivering better care to our members, providing greater value to our customers and helping improve the health of our communities.

Yet on Health Care Renewal, we have documented actions by leaders of health care organizations that directly contradict their lofty mission statements, and may have threatened patients' or the public's health.

In its aggressive international promotion of tobacco interests, the US Chamber of Commerce appears to be promoting the use of products that directly threaten individual's and the public's health.  Even though the Chamber protested that it was merely reaching out

to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries, undermine their trademarks or brands...

their protestation ignored how tobacco is a different product than that of nearly all industries.  It seems inherently dangerous to patient's the and public's health even when used as intended, and has no known health or societal benefits that even partially compensate for its risks.  Therefore, what is the argument not to discriminate those who make and promote such an inherently dangerous product from those who make products that do not threaten health, or provide obvious benefits that may compensate for their risks?

It is obvious why tobacco companies might want the Chamber's support.  What, however, could be the rationale for executives of corporations pledge to promote health to preside over the international promotion of tobacco?

The executives on the Chamber board, and their companies have not as yet even tried to provide an answer.

Thus, in the absence of better responses, in my humble opinion the presence of health care executives on the US Chamber of Commerce board is another example - an important one - of mission-hostile actions by top leaders of US health care organizations.

As we have said far too many times - without much impact so far, unfortunately - true health care reform would put in place leadership that understands the health care context, upholds health care professionals' values, and puts patients' and the public's health ahead of extraneous, particularly short-term financial concerns. We need health care governance that holds health care leaders accountable, and ensures their transparency, integrity and honesty.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Latest Example of the Anechoic Effect - AllTrials US Initiative Launches to Deafening Media Silence

Every now and then, someone tries to persuade me how much more open discussion of various kinds of recent unpleasantness in health care has become in the US. I admit there has been more media attention to certain issues, but unfortunately must maintain that the issues most likely to be make those who profit the most from our current health care system uncomfortable remains anechoic. Now I have my latest example


AllTrials is a UK based organization that advocates for registration and public reporting of all clinical trials.  AllTrials explains the reasons for this simply:

Clinical trials are the best way we have of testing whether a medicine is safe and effective. They can involve thousands of people, patients and healthy volunteers, and take years to complete.

Results from around half of all clinical trials remain hidden
Trials with negative results are twice as likely to remain unreported as those with positive results. This means that people who make decisions about medicines don’t have full information about the benefits and risks of treatments we use every day. Read our 8 page briefing note on missing trials here.

Thousands of clinical trials have never been publicly registered

There is no complete list of all clinical trials, so we don’t even know that some trials have taken place, never mind what was found in them.
The contributions of hundreds of thousands of patients are unused and unusable

Patients volunteer for clinical trials because they expect that what was found in the trial will be of use to doctors who make decisions about treatments and to researchers who are studying the condition. Trial participants have told us that the culture of secrecy around clinical trial reporting is a betrayal of their trust. Read their words here.

AllTrials has garnered considerable support in the UK.

On Health Care Renewal, we have been discussing the problem of suppressed clinical research for a long time, and have made similar arguments.  Up to now, I have chosen not to post a lot about AllTrials because as a UK based movement, it was getting considerable press coverage in the UK, and garnering considerable support there.  I did not think the movement needed what meager help a Health Care Renewal post would provide.

The Anechoic AllTrials USA Launch

But now, AllTrials has come to America.  And it perhaps should not be a surprise that its advent on this side of the pond generated essentially no notice, particularly, no notice in the US mainstream media or in US scholarly health care and medical journals.  

The announcement of the AllTrials US initiative appeared on the organization's website, and on the Biomed Central blog..  A press release appeared on the PRNewswire.  The American Academy of Family Practice (AAFP) announced its participation on its website.   The move received support from a post on the PLoS Public Health Perspectives blog, and perhaps surprisingly, from the UK based Financial Times.

Otherwise, at least according to my web searching efforts, there has been silence.  I found nothing in major media outlets, nothing in medical journals, and even nothing on the websites of the few US professional societies other than the AAFP that are listed as AllTrials USA supporters (that is, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians and the American College of Chest Physicians). 

The Anechoic Effect Continues

We have frequently discussed the anechoic effect, the phenomenon that information or discussion that could challenge or discomfit the powers that be in the US health care often generates no echoes.  In effect, suppression of clinical research in itself is an example of the anechoic effect.

Why might even discussion that allows that clinical research might be suppressed invoke the cone of silence?

Looking at AllTrials literature may not be too helpful in providing an answer to this question.  The AllTrials organization is adept at discussing the reasons that clinical trials should not be suppressed, but has been very diplomatic about why they actually are suppressed.

On the other hand, its seems logical that when clinical trials are sponsored by organizations, such as pharmaceutical, biotechnology and device companies, to assess their own products, company management might get strong incentives to ensure that such research ends up making their products look good.  Sponsored research could be manipulated (in terms of the formal hypotheses it tests, its design, implmentation, and analysis) to increase the likelihood that the results would favor the sponsor.  When all else fails, the sponsor could suppress research that fails to make its products look good.  There is at least suggestive evidence that this occurs.  For example, see the now classic study by Turner et al that showed that clinical research sponsored by pharmaceutical companies to assess their own antidepressants were much more likely to be published if the results favored their own products.

So I suspect that the management of many health care organizations, particularly but not exclusively pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device companies may not be very comfortable discussing the problem of suppressed research, or with measures designed to uncover such research.  Further, as we have discussed frequently, such companies have financial arrangements with individual health care professionals, health care academics, academic health care organizations, and a variety of other organizations such as medical societies and patient-advocacy groups.  These arrangements can constitute individual and institutional conflicts of interest.  It is not impossible that such financial relationships might influence such individuals and groups to want to avoid the topic of research suppression.

Yet it is striking that the important AllTrials USA initiative, an offshoot of an organization that has certainly got some attention in another English speaking country, has generated NO media or medical/ health care journal coverage in the US so far.

We cannot expect any real improvement in the dysfunctional US health care system while it still appears to be taboo to discuss many of its most dysfunctional aspects.  True health care reform requires open and honest discussion of these issues, that is, we need real free speech and a real free press in health care.  

ADDENDUM (21 August, 2015) - This post was republished on the Naked Capitalism blog

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Praluent, the Next Expensive "Game Changer," Blockbuster," "New Hope," - But Not Yet Shown to Benefit Patients

Here we go again.  The same month that it approved Entresto (look here), the US Food and Drug Administration approved a new PCSK9 inhibitor cholesterol lowering agent, alirocumab, immediately marketed as the pricy Praluent by Sanofi and Regeneron, and heralded by a blast of media hype.  Yet the evidence that this drug benefits patients is lacking, and critical review of the one big published randomized controlled trial of it raises many concerns.

Media Hype

Let us first consider the media hype.  The TIME coverage started with this headline,

This New FDA-Approved Cholesterol Drug is a Game Changer

The New York Times article by Andrew Pollack quoted Katherine Wilemon, founder and president of the FH foundation, an advocacy group for patients with familial hypercholesterolemia, who have very high cholesterol values and increased risk of heart and vascular disease,

It represents a new era of hope for us.

The Washington Post article started with,

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved the first in a new class of cholesterol-busting drugs that many doctors believe will trigger a breakthrough in reducing the incidence of strokes and heart attacks, which kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

USA Today reported,

The drugs are predicted to be blockbusters many times over, adding billions of dollars to prescription drug costs, said Steve Miller, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Express Scripts, a leading pharmacy benefit manager.

Another NY Times article by Gina Kolata directly described the drug as

powerful almost beyond belief.

Ms Colata also quoted a cardiologist who characterized the drug again as a "game changer."

To be fair, note that while the WaPo article, NYT article by Pollack and the USA Today article provided hype attributed to "doctors," or identified individuals, they also quoted some people who were very skeptical about the drug.  However, in most of the media coverage, the positivity seemed to be more prominent and extreme than the skepticism. 

The High Price

In general, the media coverage noted that the "breakthrough," "blockbuster," "powerful" new drug would not come cheap.  Praluent would cost about $14,600 a year.  Naturally, those selling it saw this as a bargain.  For example, Andrew Pollack wrote in the NYT,

Sanofi and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which developed the product, said the price was justified by the potential benefits to patients and savings to the health care system that the drug would provide by preventing heart attacks and strokes — though the ability of the drug to do that has not been proved.

'We came to a price that is reflective of value, not what the market will bear,' said Elias Zerhouni, head of research and development at Sanofi, who said his own brother had suffered three heart attacks and needed new options to control cholesterol.

Gina Kolata went farther,

The $14,600 yearly price of the drug, which is injected under the skin once every two weeks, is a stunner. Yet for some patients, that might actually be a bargain.

She justified this by comparing the cost to apheresis, a radical procedure to treat high cholesterol. She did not discuss whether it had any evidence of clinical benefit. Yet,

'Cost is in the eye of the beholder,' said Dr. Daniel Soffer, [Mr. DeRuchie’s cardiologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Presumably, Dr Soffer was the one who had recommended the apheresis treatment.

Note that at best, the company that sells this drug can justify the price only in terms of potential, not actual value or results.  

No Evidence for Clinical Benefit

Praluent, generic name alirocumb, is certainly a breakthrough in that it seeks to lower cholesterol through a novel mechanism.  The drug is a biologic, a monoclonal antibody that inhibits the enzyme PCSK9.

Yet a close reading of the one large published randomized controlled trial of alirocumab(1) belays the hype beyond that.  The study by Robinson et al was a double blind randomized controlled trial of alirocumab injections every 2 weeks versus placebo.  The protocol called for patients to be treated for 78 weeks, and followed for 8 more weeks, a bit more than one and one-half years.

Loss to Follow Up and Missing Data

The study enrolled 1553 patients in the alirocumab group, and 788 in the placebo group.  However, many patients did not complete the study: a total of 437 (28.1%) in the alirocumab group, and 193 (24.5% in the placebo group).  Reasons for noncompletion were adverse events (113, 7.2% alirocumab vs 47, 6.0% placebo); "nonadherent" to treatment (60, 3.9% vs 38, 4.7%), and "other reason," (264, 17.0% vs 108, 13.7%).

So the drop out rate was fairly high.  It was particularly troubling that the reasons for most of the drop outs were vague "other reaons."  I could not find a clarification of this term in the main article or  supplemental materials.

Furthermore, it was not clear how the investigators intended to collect data from patients after they dropped out, and how complete data collection about clinical events was for patients who dropped out.  (Note that for patients that dropped out, the investigators simply imputed, that is estimated cholesterol values, but did not necessarily measure them.  So even this measure was "potential.")

Drop outs and missing data are classically problematic because patients may drop out after suffering  events that could be counted as study outcomes.  The rate of these events could differ according to treatment group.  If patients who dropped out of the alirocumab group had more adverse events than those who dropped out of the placebo group, and these events were not recorded, the high drop out rate could have concealed important harms of the drug.

Thus it is quite possible that the study by Robinson et al undercounted adverse events due to aliromucab.

Multiple Study Sites

The study enrolled patients at a remarkable number of sites, 320 in 27 countries, so that the average number of patients enrolled per site was only seven.    It seems improbable that a study involving so many investigators and centers, most of whom must have devoted little of their time and effort to this particular study, would have adequate quality control.  I could not find a discussion of implementation quality control in the published article.

Thus it is possible that poor quality of study implementation, which could have affected enrollment and data collection, may have challenged the validity of the Robinson et al study.

 Lack of Generalizability in the Patient Population

The complete list of exclusion criteria, only appearing in the supplementary material, was extensive.  Patients with many common problems were supposed to be excluded, and the definition of the some exclusion criteria were vague and subjective.

Common conditions leading to exclusion were:
- Recent heart and cardiovascular problems, i.e., "(within 3 months prior to the screening visit [Week -3] or between screening and randomization visits) MI, unstable angina leading to hospitalization, uncontrolled cardiac arrhythmia, CABG, PCI, carotid surgery or stenting, cerebrovascular accident, transient ischemic attack, endovascular procedure or surgical intervention for peripheral vascular disease."
- "Planned to undergo scheduled PCI, CABG, carotid or peripheral revascularization during the study"
-  Severe congestive heart failure, i.e., "New York Heart Association Class III or IV heart failure within the past 12 months"
- Poorly controlled hypertension, i.e., "Systolic blood pressure >180 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure >110 mmHg at screening visit or randomization visit."
- "History of hemorrhagic stroke."
- "History of active optic nerve disease."
- Use of systemic corticosteroids, other than for replacement 
- "History of cancer within the past 5 years, except for adequately treated basal cell skin cancer, squamous cell skin cancer, or in situ cervical cancer."
- "History of HIV positivity."
-   "Positive test for Hepatitis B surface antigen and/or Hepatitis C antibody (confirmed by reflexive testing)."
- Kidney dysfunction, specifically, "eGFR <30 nbsp="" p="">- Poorly controlled diabetes, specifically, HbA1c >10%.
- Abnormal liver enzymes, specifically, ALT or AST > x ULN

Vaguely described exclusions were:

E 25. Conditions/situations such as:
A) Any clinically significant abnormality identified at the time of screening that in the
judgment of the Investigator or any sub-Investigator would preclude safe completion
of the study or constrain endpoints assessment such as major systemic diseases,
patients with short life expectancy.
B) Patients considered by the Investigator or any sub-Investigator as inappropriate
for this study for any reason, e.g.:
i) Those deemed unable to meet specific protocol requirements, such as scheduled
ii) Those deemed unable to administer or tolerate long-term injections as per the
patient or the investigator.


iv) Presence of any other conditions (eg, geographic, social….) actual or anticipated,
that the Investigator feels would restrict or limit the patient’s participation for the
duration of the study.

Thus the study would have excluded patients with a variety of common conditions, and may have excluded many other patients based on rather poorly defined decisions by individual investigators.  Since patients in clinical practice commonly have common conditions, the generalizability of the results of this study to many practices and patients was not clear.

No Evidence of Clinical Benefit

Patients should not be subject to treatments whose benefits do not clearly outweigh their harms.  The Robinson et al article focused on reductions in measured cholesterol, particularly LDL cholesterol.  The new drug certainly did seem to clearl reduce cholesterol, particularly LDL cholesterol.  However, these are only the results of laboratory tests.

Although high cholesterol and high LDL cholesterol indicate increased risk of future cardiac events, many patients with abnormal values do not have such events.  Having a high cholesterol or LDL cholesterol does not directly cause symptoms, or dysfunction.  Thus simply lowering cholesterol does not immediately or directly benefit patients.  Furthermore, other drug have been shown to lower cholesterol, but ultimately they accomplished this without ever being shown to benefit patients, e.g., by preventing heart attacks, strokes, or premature death.

However, cholesterol values are considered intermediate or surrogate variables.  They are not directly related to what happens to patients, who they feel or function, whether they get new diseases, or when they die.  So only showing that the new drug lowers cholesterol does not prove clinical patient benefit.

Although the published trial did attempt to record cardiovascular events, it did not find that the drug prevented them.  The small difference in total cardiovascular events affecting patients given alirocumab (4.6%) versus placebo (5.1%) did not reach statistical significance, that is, could well have been due to chance alone.

Furthermore, while elevated cholesterol is a chronic problem, and the problems with which it is correlated occur over the long run, the study ran for less than 2 years.  It could not measure the effects of the new drug beyond that.

So the clinical benefit of the drug was not evident in this trial.

On the other hand, the drug was not without its own risks.  More patients who received aliromucab left the study due to adverse events (7.2%) thand did those who got placebo (5.8%),  as noted above.  Also, as noted above, it was possible that adverse events affecting dropouts were not fully recorded.  Given that there were higher rates of dropouts due to non adherence and "other" reasons among patients who received alirocumab, the study might still have missed important adverse effects of the new drug.

So the study did not prove that the new drug has any clinical benefits, showed it does have clinical harms, and could still have easily underestimated its harms.  So it certainly did not show it had benefits that outweighed its harms.

Summary and Conclusions

The NEJM study was accompanied by an editorial by Stone and Lloyd-Jones(2) which documented that drugs previously shown to lower cholesterol were never proved to do any good for patients, and concluded,

it would be premature to endorse these drugs for widespread use before the ongoing randomized trials, appropriately powered for primary end-point analysis and safety assessment, are available. 

After an FDA advisory committee recommended approval of aliromucab in June, 2015, John Mandrola entitled a Medscape article,

Dear FDA: Resist the Urge on PCSK9 Drugs

His reasons included lack of proof of clinical benefits, and concerns that harms may have been missed but mainly because of its inability to detect long-term outcomes.

Again, the current media articles also noted the concerns raised by Dr Mandrola and the NEJM editorial These concerns, however, did not dissuade the FDA from approving aliromucab.  These concerns did not apparently affect the pricing of Praluent.  These concerns will likely not deter the drug manufacturers from continuing an aggressive marketing campaign.  Whether these concerns will deter physicians from prescribing, or patients from asking for these drugs is unknown, but unlikely.

And I have not seen anything published so far that addressed how the problem with dropouts and missing data may have lead to further underestimation of aliromucab's harms, the multiplicity of study sites may have lead to quality control problems further challenging the study's validity, and the extensive exclusion criteria may have reduced the study's generalizability.

So here we go again.  Another new drug is put on the market accompanied by a mighty hoopla, yet in the absence of clear data that it does more good for patients than harm.

As we said last year about valsartan-sacubitril, also just (July, 2015) put on the market as Entresto, at a high price and with lots of hype,...

All the enthusiasm about this drug may be premature, and does not appear to be evidence-based.  That clinical research sponsored by organizations that sell health care goods and services may be manipulated to make the sponsors' products look better than they really are is now an old story.  We have seen multiple instances in which drugs and devices turned out to be less efficacious and/or more dangerous than originally advertised.  Excess enthusiasm about such new innovations may drive up costs, and worse, hurt patients.  Physicians, other health care professionals, and those concerned about health policy ought to be much more skeptical about every new instance of a purportedly wondrous innovation. 

Evidence-based medicine rigorously applied suggests that individual health care and health policy decisions should be driven by the best available evidence, mostly from clinical research, about the benefits and harms of tests, treatments, programs, and so on, in the context of what outcomes matter to patients.  The skepticism EBM should engender could lead to health care that is more about patients and their outcomes, and less about ideology, hype, and hucksterism.

How high must our health care costs go, and how many unproven treatments must eventually be exposed as such before we learn that lesson?

ADDENDUM (6 August, 2015) - Fixed minor errors: misspelling of Ms Kolata's name fixed, misstatement re apharesis fixed, erroneous reference to second approved PCSK9 inhibitor removed.  

ADDENDUM (9 August, 2015) - Note that his post was republished on the Naked Capitalism blog.  

1. Robinson JG, Farnier M, Krempf M et al.  Efficacy and safety of alirocumab in reduincg lipids and cardiovascular events.  N Engl J Med 2015; 372: 1489-1499.  Link here.
2.  Stone NJ, Lloyd-Jones DM.  Lowering LDL cholestero is good, but how in whom?  N Engl J Med 2015; 372: 1564-5.  Link here.