The study, however, was conceived and conducted by Merck’s marketing department. Why? As Vioxx was about to come to market, Merck needed to develop a need for their product. By hiring physicians to participate as “investigators” on this trial, Merck was exposing its product to an important group of potential customers. To quote Merck:
The objectives were to provide product trial among a key physician group to accelerate uptake of VIOXX as the second entrant in a highly competitive new class and gather data important to this customer group. The trial was designed and executed in the spirit of the Merck marketing principles.
Other snippets from a Merck marketing memo, with pithy commentary added free of charge:
- "...the trial was targeted to a select group of critical customers.” So the main qualification to be a “research investigator” in this trial was to be a customer that Merck wanted to win over.
- “The sales force nominated potential investigators and completed intake forms, allowing a very large number of sites to be evaluated and enrolled and ensuring equal distribution of investigators across the business groups.” Again, the sales force chose the physicians, apparently based on how easily they could be swayed to prescribe Vioxx as a result of participating in this study.
- “An analysis performed at 6 months post launch demonstrated a significantly higher level of prescribing for VIOXX among primary care ADVANTAGE investigators compared to a control group of VIOXX 99 prescribers (see attached). Feedback from the field has been overwhelmingly positive about their ability to access key customers and the influence that being involved in the trial has had on their perceptions of VIOXX and Merck.” The program apparently had its desired results – more docs prescribing Vioxx as a result of their participation in Merck marketing-designed “research.” As for the patients dying due to taking Vioxx, well, what’s a little collateral damage when there are quarterly sales goals to be met?
The name for such an exercise in marketing is a “seeding trial,” referring to a company planting seeds in physicians to use their product under the guise of research.
II. What about getting the results out?
According to Merck: “Preparations are now underway for analysis and publication of the data, which will utilize key investigators as authors and advisors.” Turns out that worked pretty well – as the lead author on the main ADVANTAGE publication told the New York Times that “Merck designed the trial, paid for the trial, ran the trial. Merck came to me after the study was completed and said, “We want your help to work on the paper. The initial paper was written at Merck, and then it was sent to me for editing.” – it was sent to him to place a veneer of academic credibility on Merck’s marketing-run trial.
Even Merck’s head of research said that trials such as ADVANTAGE are “intellectually redundant” – as they tend to focus on results that are already well-established, such as showing Vioxx to be somewhat easier on the gastrointestinal tract that naproxen.
Harold Sox and Drummond Rennie, also writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine, in a critique of Vioxx’s marketing wrote:
This practice—a seeding trial—is marketing in the guise of science. The apparent purpose is to test a hypothesis. The true purpose is to get physicians in the habit of prescribing a new drug. Why would a drug company go to the expense and bother of conducting a trial involving hundreds of practitioners— each recruiting a few patients—when a study based at a few large medical centers could accomplish the same scientific purposes much more efficiently? The main point of the seeding trial is not to get high-quality scientific information: It is to change the prescribing habits of large numbers of physicians. A secondary purpose is to transform physicians into advocates for the sponsor’s drug. The company flatters a physician by selecting him because he is “an opinion leader” and incorporates him in the research team with the title of “investigator.” Then, it pays him good money: a consulting fee to advise the company on the drug’s use and another fee for each patient he enrolls. The physician becomes invested in the drug’s future and praises its good features to patients and colleagues. Unwittingly, the physician joins the sponsor’s marketing team. Why do companies pursue this expensive tactic? Because it works.
This is hardly the biggest problem with Vioxx, as its tendency to kill people en masse via heart problems is obviously a far more important issue. And we all know at this point that Merck made sure to underplay the risks of Vioxx, and that the medical community was also asleep at the wheel when it came examining published studies on the risks of Vioxx. Nonetheless, using the guise of science to recruit naive (or greedy) physicians to serve as Vioxx pushers is contemptible.
Merck was out pushing how wonderfully safe and well-tolerated was via a “study” designed solely to turn “investigators” into top Vioxx prescribers, while at the same time, more and more people were meeting an early end due to this purportedly safe new drug.
For more hot Vioxx action, check out this site.
Update (8-19-08): Check out an interview with Dr. Kevin Hill, lead author of the investigation of the ADVANTAGE trial, over at the Carlat Psychiatry Blog. As always, Pharmalot also has a good post on the topic.