A Conversation with David Healy, MD, author of the new book Pharmageddon
David Healy, MD by Healy
Rosenberg: Your new book, Pharmageddon, gives a bleak picture of the doctored data, skewed drug trials and rigged treatment guidelines that characterize today's pharmaceutical industry. Many people will be shocked to learn the abuses are not limited to the US, where direct-to-consumer advertising is legal, but found in Europe.
Healy: The situation is identical. Pharma actually finds socialized health care systems easier to exploit. And despite direct-to-consumer advertising, more money is spent on marketing to doctors who are the real consumers. They are also pressured by the treatment guidelines process which is based on "evidence" that Pharma makes sure to keep secret so they are really in the dark, though they may not realize it.
Rosenberg: One example you give of Pharma's reach and power is the eerie symmetry between the Texas Medication Algorithm Project (TMAP), conceptualized and funded by US Pharma, and Britain's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).
Healy: Despite their public/private differences, both organizations recommend the use of branded antipsychotics like Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel before the use of older, affordable antipsychotics which of course enriches Pharma. One of the other issues is this--there is a new bill aimed at speeding up the FDA approval process yet again--and also getting regulators to take into account the jobs that come with a strong pharmaceutical sector. Both America and Europe have been keen to keep their companies happy and have turned a blind eye to the outsourcing of clinical trials to Asia and Eastern Europe.
Rosenberg: In Pharmageddon, you chronicle how clinical trial oversight has gone from a hospital and university-based system to a for-profit system run by clinical research organizations or CROs.
Healy: The drug companies have outsourced all their operations from drug development and testing to clinical trials to scientific and academic writing so that they have become nothing but marketing organizations at their core. At each juncture where they have spun off a traditional responsibility, no one has objected and so it continues.
Rosenberg: There have been reports of risks to human subjects in overseas trials as well as bribes and protocol irregularities. Who oversees the ethics of outsourced trials and the quality of their data?
Healy: Clinical trials are overseen by private Institutional Review Boards, which are funded by the organizations they regulate--
Rosenberg: Like Moody's and Standard & Poor's are funded by their clients?
Healy: Yes. A recent large trial for the antipsychotic Abilify demonstrates the danger with outsourced clinical trials. On the basis of about 28 trials in the US, Abilify did not prophylactically stabilize mood as the manufacturer wants to claim. But when data from just two trials from Mexico were mixed in, it did.
Rosenberg: Most of Pharma's power to mislead and harm comes from such opaque and distorted data, you charge in Pharmageddon.
Healy: Without access to the raw drug data, medical professionals cannot practice responsible medicine and guidelines cannot be written. Yet Pharma, with very few exceptions, refuses to publish the data and share them with practitioners. This result is guidelines that are fictions and doctors who lack critical information they need to prescribe and treat.
Rosenberg: Pharma's stonewalling of data and use of ghostwriters has resulted in articles in major medical journals that made Vioxx, hormone therapy and Neurontin look safe when they weren't. Another example you give is a paper in the Journal of the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in which GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has made the antidepressant Paxil look safe by hiding raw data. Then editor, Mina Dulcan, says about the missing data, which hid Paxil's suicidal side effect in children, "I can't control the authors. No, I don't have regrets."
Healy: If we were getting our drug information from the New York Times instead of medical journals, we would all be a lot safer. When the Times reporter Jayson Blair was found to have fabricated stories, he was history. But the editors and writers involved with journal fraud still have their jobs and the articles are not even retracted. In fact, Liz Wager, the chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is herself Pharma linked.
1 | 2