Selling Out Medicine: An Up-Close Look at the Pharmaceutical Industry's Influence on Medical Research

August 2, 2010

Boston Review recently produced a special issue entitled “Big Pharma, Bad Medicine” — and it is well worth reading.

Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and author of “The Truth About Drug Companies,” wrote the lead article — to which many other academics, health writers and industry representatives responded.

Angell’s opening critique of the cozy relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and medical research institutions is devastating. Summarinzing an argument she made in her book — and in many prominent op-edsinterviews and in a NEJM editorial, “Is Academic Medicine for Sale?” — Angell outlines the steps through which big pharma influences, and in many cases controls, the entire process of medical research — from clinical trials of new drugs to continuing education of doctors.

By putting profit before public good, big pharma’s power distorts the medical mission of many universities:

Academic medical centers are charged with educating the next generation of doctors, conducting scientifically important research, and taking care of the sickest and neediest patients. That’s what justifies their tax-exempt status. In contrast, drug companies — like other investor-owned businesses — are charged with increasing the value of their shareholders’ stock. That is their fiduciary responsibility, and they would be remiss if they didn’t uphold it. All their other activities are means to that end. The companies are supposed to develop profitable drugs, not necessarily important or innovative ones, and paradoxically enough, the most profitable drugs are the least innovative. Nor do drug companies aim to educate doctors, except as a means to the primary end of selling drugs. Drug companies don’t have education budgets; they have marketing budgets from which their ostensibly educational activities are funded.

This profound difference in missions is often deliberately obscured — by drug companies because it’s good public relations to portray themselves as research and educational institutions, and by academics because it means they don’t have to face up to what’s really going on.

Angell’s most pointed criticism is not at the drug companies, however, who, apologists could argue, are just trying to do right by their investors. Rather, she is most bothered by the complicity of the academic institutions. Angell ultimately recommends three specific reforms:

First, members of medical school faculties who conduct clinical trials should not accept any payments from drug companies except research support, and that support should have no strings attached. In particular, drug companies should have no control over the design, interpretation, and publication of research results. Medical schools and teaching hospitals should rigorously enforce this rule and should not themselves enter into deals with companies whose products are being studied by members of their faculty.

Second, doctors should not accept gifts from drug companies, even small ones, and they should pay for their own meetings and continuing education. Other professions pay their own way, and there is no reason for the medical profession to be different in this regard.

Finally, academic medical centers that patent discoveries should put them in the public domain or license them inexpensively and non-exclusively.

Several of the respondents in the Boston Review pick up on one of Angell’s points and pursue it with more depth. In  “The Case of H1N1,” Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at University of Texas and author of “Hooked: Ethics, the Medical Profession and the Pharmaceutical Industry,” explains how the pharmaceutical company Roche was able to obscure negative or neutral research on the drug Tamiflu while public health agencies around the world stockpiled large supplies. Later, the research in support of Tamiflu was found to be unconvincing.

David Bollier, author of “Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own” and co-editor of, takes Angell’s recommendations a step further with his call to “Restore Medicine to the Commons”:

Understanding academic medicine as a commons helps us appreciate more clearly why it is so important to protect the non-market paradigm of research, education, and clinical care. In this mode, medicine harnesses the power of the scientific method through a transparent, ethical, merit-based process. It mobilizes community judgment and ethical scrutiny. It is insulated from the corrupting influences and self-dealing associated with an unregulated market economy.

Unfortunately, we have not been attentive to the value of academic medicine as a commons. We are suffering mightily as a result.

Suzanne Gordon, author of “When Chicken Soup Isn’t Enough: Stories of Nurses Standing Up for Themselves, Their Patients and Their Profession,” reminds us: “Don’t Forget Nurses.” She notes that nurse-practioners, who prescribe a great deal of medicine, have not been overlooked by the pharmaceutical industry, even if they are often forgotten in this type of discussion:

Today nurses no longer have to beg to get noticed. Like medical conferences, nursing conferences are now heavily supported by pharmaceutical and medical-equipment companies, which, like the corporations advertising on public television and radio, demand more and more of the spotlight. Nurses, like physicians, are flown to exotic spots and showered with so-called educational presentations. When I mentioned this phenomenon to a very respected nurse-academic, I expected her to share my concern. Her response: “It’s about time we got ours.”

Perhaps the most poignant — and funny — response comes from Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor of physiology and family medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center and director of To show how continuing medical education (CME) is, in Angell’s words, “marketing masquerading as education,” Fugh-Berman creates a fictional scenario:

The gurgles and rumbles of an empty stomach are called, in medical-speak, borborygmi (it is one of the few onomatopoeic medical words). Let’s imagine that a company is developing a drug that prevents borborygmi. The first step would be to encourage people to take the disease state seriously. Marketing messages developed while the drug is still undergoing testing might include:

• While the occasional growling stomach is not a cause for concern, regular episodes could indicate the presence of CLASS (Chronic Loud Atypical Stomach Sounds).

• CLASS is not always benign. The distinction between normal stomach rumbling and a symptom of a serious disease can only be made by a physician.

• CLASS sufferers may limit their travel, work, and recreational activities out of embarrassment; some may become reclusive, fearing social stigmatization.

• CLASS can lead to overeating and obesity because sufferers may eat constantly to prevent audible stomach rumbling.

A pharmaceutical company may then begin to recruit physicians to act as mouthpieces for specific marketing messages …

Fugh-Berman continues the story all the way to the point where other companies are attempting to create “me-too” drugs that piggy-back on the original company’s success.

Angell, in her response to the responders, notes that Fugh Berman’s scenario “would be hilarious if it were an exaggeration, but it’s not. Drug companies frequently engage in such campaigns to prepare the way for a new drug or a new use for an old one. One example was the creation of an epidemic of ‘social anxiety disorder,’ formerly known as shyness, and the marketing of Paxil to treat it.”

*In related news, Harvard Medical School just last week announced new restrictions on relationships between its 11,000 faculty members and pharmaceutical and medical device makers. Here’s a summary of the changes.

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Plus: Drugs, of course, can’t solve everything. Writing in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande explores (in a very humanizing and moving way) how our healthcare system, which can do a great job of prolonging life, is often at a loss when it comes to care for the dying.

“People have concerns besides simply prolonging their lives. Surveys of patients with terminal illness find that their top priorities include, in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others,” writes Gawande. “Our system of technological medical care has utterly failed to meet these needs, and the cost of this failure is measured in far more than dollars.”

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