Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Listen to David Healy

David Healy made some insightful comments in the Daily Mail the other day. Everyone should be listening carefully. An excerpt follows, in which all emphasis is added…

Documents prised out of companies by American court cases have become the main way we have of discovering the truth about some of our best-selling drugs.

As well as Prozac, there have been another four or five other drugs exposed in this way.

Two years ago, the painkiller Vioxx was found to double the risk of heart problems; company documents revealed that the drugs sales team were instructed to keep this information from doctors.

Just before Christmas, internal documents suggested attempts were made to play down the serious health risks associated with the top-selling anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa.

Last week similar boxes formed the background to a Panorama programme showing how the company making Seroxat distorted evidence that the drug raised the risk of suicide in children.

The effect of these scandals is to show that something has gone badly wrong with the way our medicines are researched and sold.


Now company employees analyse the data and medical journalists are hired to write them up for publication. Then Oxbridge and Ivy League professors are paid several thousand pounds to be credited as the authors of these articles.

This is something I've come across personally. Articles have been "ghostwritten" for me by drug companies, and then - when I refused to put my name to them - the same articles have appeared under someone else's name.

I have also seen company memos asking who would be the most "useful" academics to have as the authors of articles already written.

Once published in top medical journals, these confections will deliver more sales than any number of drug representatives, but all too often they are not accurate reports of the trial results.

In other organisations when evidence of disregard for public safety emerges, heads roll. But there have been no resignations following these drug disasters - barely a flicker of embarrassment.


There's no point appealing to the government drugs watchdog - the MHRA. It is a small outfit entirely funded by the drug industry.

It has never taken any action against the academics who make fraudulent claims in ghostwritten articles, nor doctors working for the companies who repeat such claims, even when they have been shown to be untrue.

So the only other body to turn to is the General Medical Council, whose job it is to investigate the conduct of doctors - but it has shown no inclination to act.

But there is one simple thing we could all do to reclaim the clinical trials. People who participate as guinea pigs should insist the consent form states that the data will be available to all, and without this any drug tester should refuse to sign.

Think Healy has gone mad? Check out some background stories related to his concerns. Try Seroxat/Paxil and the academics who seem to have played the role of company hucksters (here and here). The Zyprexa coverup – too many links to list, but you can start here and here. How about allegedly independent academic physicians making misleadingly positive statements about Seroquel, a drug they “independently” investigated? Ghostwriting? Plenty of evidence available on that – you can start here and here. Cherry picking data to focus on the (minimal) positive results? Try here and here.

Suffice to say that Healy is spot on. When he speaks, I advise paying close attention.

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