The Medical Industry’s Own “Steroids in Baseball” Scandal

Another reason for careful patients to be skeptical about overly hyped prescription drugs came this week with news about the extent to which articles in important medical journals are “ghost-written” by drug manufacturers.

According to an article in the New York Times by Natasha Singer, newly released papers from lawsuits involving Wyeth’s hormone replacement drugs Premarin and Prempro show that over several years, Wyeth repeatedly hired ghost writers who placed 26 articles in 18 prestigious medical journals, all promoting the drugs in the guise of objective analysis by medical experts:

The court documents provide a detailed paper trail showing how Wyeth contracted with a medical communications company to outline articles, draft them and then solicit top physicians to sign their names, even though many of the doctors contributed little or no writing. The documents suggest the practice went well beyond the case of Wyeth and hormone therapy, involving numerous drugs from other pharmaceutical companies.

The Times article made an interesting comparison to professional baseball’s steroids scandal.

“It’s almost like steroids and baseball,” said Dr. Joseph S. Ross, an assistant professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, who has conducted research on ghostwriting. “You don’t know who was using and who wasn’t; you don’t know which articles are tainted and which aren’t.”

Because physicians rely on medical literature, the concern about ghostwriting is that doctors might change their prescribing habits after reading certain articles, unaware they were commissioned by a drug company.

“The filter is missing when the reader does not know that the germ of an article came from the manufacturer,” said James Szaller, a lawyer in Cleveland who has spent four years going through the ghostwriting documents on behalf of hormone therapy plaintiffs.

The same concern about ghostwriting applies to patients who read literature on the Internet. People can be easily misled if they think an article is truly objective.

My advice, as I write in my book, “The Life You Save,” is to rely on truly independent groups like the Medical Letter and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group for objective information about drugs.

Some top medical journals like the Journal of the AMA now require authors to fill out detailed forms describing exactly how much input they had into the writing of an article. But many do not have such requirements. Consumer, beware.

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