width=A conversation with Michael Hochman, MD

A study this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the mainstream news media isn’t passing muster when it comes to sussing out industry bias in pharmaceutical research. Investigators looked at more than 300 articles in the mainstream print media about major medical studies and found that 42% of the articles neglected to indicate when the research being reported was funded by pharmaceutical company, and that two-thirds of news articles refer to medications by their brand names, rather than the generic ones, the majority of the time.

We talked with lead author Dr. Michael Hochman, an internal medicine resident at Cambridge Health Alliance, who says that both the fourth estate and the medical community need to be asking more questions about why and how industry funds the research of its own drugs, and what that could mean for our health.

RxP: Why did you do this study?

MH: From numerous recent studies, we know that company funded research is more likely to generate positive results than non-company funded research. We also know that company funded research frequently uses “soft endpoints,” such as improvement in cholesterol levels rather than more meaningful endpoints like all-cause mortality. Because of the important impact company funding can have on the reliability of research results, readers of the lay media need to be aware when a study has been company-funded so that they can interpret the results appropriately. We found that the news media do not always do a great job of this.

Based on our findings, here’s what I think needs to be done:

1. News organizations must adopt and enforce formal, written policies stating that all articles about medical research must indicate how the research was funded and must refer to medications predominately by their generic names.

2. Doctors need to be aware of the biases inherent in company funded research, and view the results in that light.

3. We need to consider alternative funding sources for clinical research, such as the National Institutes of Health, that do not have direct financial interests in the results.

RxP: You say journalists should use a drug’s generic name instead of the widely-used brand-names owned by the companies that sponsor the studies. If journalists did use generic names more often, would it change a doctor’s choice of drug?

MH: I think it could. Patients often come to their doctor requesting specific medications that they see in advertisements or read about in news articles, and if they read about generic medications in news articles then I think they will be more likely to ask their doctors about generic medications, and doctors will be more likely to prescribe generic drugs.

RxP: You’ve said: “We in the medical community realize that research funded by pharmaceutical companies can’t always be trusted…” Has the press played a role in telling that story?

MH: Yes, but not as well as they could. We have had several prominent recent examples in which company funded proved to be biased. The most widely known is the rofecoxib (Vioxx) scandal in which company researchers were not forthcoming about the adverse cardiovascular effects of the drug. Company researchers were also not particularly forthcoming about cardiovascular side effects associated with rosiglitazone (Avandia).

I think these are all very important news stories, and the news media has covered them, but they haven’t driven home the point.

RxP: How could the press done better by the public around Vioxx?

MH: I think they did a good job of identifying the problem, but they didn’t do a good enough job of emphasizing that the same problems that led to the rofecoxib scandal are probably at work in many other company funded studies. It’s probably a much more widespread problem than this one isolated case. The media didn’t ask us to reexamine the fundamental way we do research in this country, or question that maybe having Merck research its own drug isn’t the best way to get meaningful results.

RxP: Do you think physicians have fully acknowledged the influence of their relationships with industry?

MH: Unfortunately, no. If we had, we would be actively seeking alternative funding sources for medical research – the National Institutes of Health, for example. To be quite frank, I am much more skeptical of company funded research than I am of other research, and I try to rely on non-company funded research as much as possible when making decisions about my patients. I think some of my colleagues feel similarly, but not the majority.

RxP: How will the current economic crisis affect our ability to consider seriously restructuring research funding through the NIH?

MH: At one level, sure, bailing out Wall Street means the government will have less money to support the NIH, but keep in mind, we’ve seen a pretty significant cutback in NIH research funding in the eight years prior. That said, I think this economic fallout has made all Americans more skeptical of corporate practices, and perhaps that skepticism will spill over to the pharmaceutical industry.

RxP: You point out in a Boston Globe op-ed that journalists get promotional press releases from the industry and interact with pharmaceutical representatives at medical conventions. But we expect and need journalists to hear from all stakeholders for any story. Where’s the evidence that coverage has somehow been biased?

MH: A number of previous studies have shown that medical coverage by the news media overstates medication benefits and underplays their side effects. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. I think the main reason is that journalists want to write interesting stories that will keep readers engaged.

However, pharmaceutical promotions may also play a role. I can’t site specific evidence that the news media are influenced by company promotions, except to say that if the advertising didn’t work, the companies wouldn’t do it.

RxP: But do you find petitions by drug companies to the press corps more harmful to health care than gifts from detailers to physicians or the interactions clinicians have with pharma reps at conventions and CME courses?

MH: All are problems. I believe that we doctors should not accept any gifts from pharmaceutical representatives of any value. Medical decision making should be based on evidence, not advertising. And we have strong research that shows physicians who accept gifts are more susceptible to advertising.

RxP: So you seem to say there’s an absence of skepticism around company-funded trials the larger medical community, not just in the news. If that’s the case, are you asking the press to go first?

MH: I wish I could place all the blame on the media, but medical journals and doctors – who have bought into our current system – probably deserve the lion’s share of the blame. It is the medical community – not journalists – that has allowed a system to develop in which companies fund the vast majority of clinical research. However, I think both the medical community and the news media can play an important role in counteracting corporate influences in medicine.

We in medicine have a long way to go on this – we have the power to keep reps out of our hospitals and out of our clinical decision-making, and many medical schools and some hospitals have begun to ban gifts to doctors, but a lot more work needs to be done.

In terms of the news media, they sometimes get carried away in reporting exciting new medical developments before they’re ready for prime time. But patients’ lives are at stake, and we really need to be more vigilant in weeding out the junk, and determining how good these treatments really are, and what the risks are.

RxP: Do you think physicians should be required to disclose their own financial relationships with industry to patients?

MH: I think patients absolutely should be aware of any company funding that their doctors have received, however the best way to transmit this information is unclear. Perhaps physicians should be required to disclose financial relationships on publicly available websites.

RxP: Reporting on the source of funding doesn’t really tell patients or doctors whether a study is biased or well-designed. Are there more substantive changes you’d like to see in how journalists report medical studies?

MH: Again, this is challenging, because in order to really understand medical research, you need a medical background and some training in epidemiology, and you can’t expect this of most journalists — and perhaps not even of all doctors. I think the responsibility for fleshing out the details of studies and exposing their shortcomings must come from non-biased medical journal reviewers who carefully go through the study methods. The FDA must also do a better job of critically analyzing medical research when making decisions about drug approvals.

The Association of Healthcare Journalists has published an excellent set of guidelines about the appropriate way to cover medical research, and I think journalists should focus on abiding by these principles (http://www.healthjournalism.org/secondarypage-details.php?id=56).

Also, the Health News Review (http://www.healthnewsreview.org/) evaluates the quality and fairness of medical stories in the popular press, and I think the standards by which they grade articles are very appropriate and should be followed by journalists.

Thanks to co-authors: Steven Hochman, Pomona College; Dr. David Bor, Chief of Medicine, Cambridge Health Alliance, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School; Dr. Danny McCormick, Cambridge Health Alliance, assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School.