Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Educational Presentations" for Big Pharm

Pharmaceutical companies have long been notorious for giving gifts to doctors, hoping to increase prescriptions of their drugs. Some states, including Vermont, have put severe restrictions on this practice. However, it remains perfectly legal for the companies to "employ" the doctors to give talks on the benefits of their drugs, paying them up to $200,000 a year, as reported by WNYC. Some of these doctors had even lost their practicing license because of convictions by some health departments, and "teaching" became their primary profession.

But if a doctor thinks a drug is effective, there's nothing wrong with him or her letting others know what he or she likes about it, right? It's win-win because the doctor gets paid and the drug company gets an "expert" giving recommendations, rather than just a spokesperson. However, it's not just candid advice.
[A presenting doctor] shows up at a restaurant in front of a group of doctors and leads them through a PowerPoint presentation about the benefits and side effects of Geodon. All of the almost 80 slides are written by Pfizer. Pfizer and other companies say they need to make sure all the content complies with Food & Drug Administration regulations. The rule is Schloss [the doctor] can’t go off script, even if he may know a lot about the drug that isn’t mentioned on the slides.
Some of the paid doctors even admit this. “A monkey can read the slides at this point. Well, a monkey that can read can read the slides,” said Stephen Friedes, a psychiatrist who was paid for several years to advise an antidepressant. He eventually quit for this reason, saying “there’s no freedom of speech and I have to say the party line, and it took away all the fun and all the educating aspects of it.”
Others defend the practice. Frank Lowe, of Columbia Medical, claims that
“When new drugs come out, the general doctor has no clue about the new product,” said Lowe. “You know, when I go out to Wichita, Kansas or Kansas City or Asheville, North Carolina, where there are no significant medical schools associated with them, I actually provide a real service in terms of education -- even if the talks are scripted.”
Of course, if the doctor has no clue about the product, how is he or she a voice of authority? And if the talks are scripted, then why does an expert need to present them? Why can't a drug company advertising agent, or even a monkey who can read?

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