The British Medical Journal just published an anonymous article by a pharmaceutical company insider that explained once again how pharmaceutical companies turn research studies, apparently scholarly articles, and medical education into stealth marketing efforts. (See Anonymous. Post-marketing observational studies: my experience in the drug industry. Brit Med J 2012; 344: 28. Link here.)
We have previously discussed examples of health care corporate insiders confessing their individual efforts to turn medical research and education into marketing. For example, peruse this. We have also discussed how documents made public through litigation have revealed marketing plans for specific drugs that used apparently academic, educational, or scholarly publications and venues to market without revealing this transformation. For example, see the Neurontin marketing plan (see post here), and the Lexapro marketing plan (see post here). We have also discussed numerous examples of manipulation of particular research studies by those with vested interests, and outright suppression of studies whose results did not favor such vested interests.
Yet I suspect majorities of health care academics and professionals, health care policy makers, and the public at large do not realize, or would not admit that the evidence base for making health care decisions, and the general academic and professional discourse has been so corrupted. So it is worthwhile to review once again how an insider summarized this corruption.
Research Studies Designed Primarily as Marketing Vehicles
In general, the anonymous author suggested that at least some studies were done for marketing, not scientific purposes:
some of the studies I worked on were not designed to determine the overall risk:benefit balance of the drug in the general population. They were designed to support and disseminate a marketing message.
Whether it was to highlight a questionable advantage over a 'me-too' competitor drug or to increase disease awareness among the medical community (particularly in so called invented diseases) and in turn increase product penetration in the market, the truth is that these studies had more marketing than science behind them.
Furthermore, the studies were supervised not by physicians or scientists, but by marketers in the marketing department,
Although the medical department developed the publication plans, designed the study, performed the statistical analysis, and wrote the final paper (which when published was passed on to marketing and sales to be used as marketing material), the marketing team responsible for that product were directly involved in all stages. They also closely supervised the content of other educational 'scientific' materials produced in the medical department and intended for potential prescribers. Instructions from marketing to the medical staff involved were clear: to ensure that the benefits of the drug were emphasised and the disadvantages were minimised where possible.
Manipulation of Research Design, Implementation, or Analysis
The author described how the marketers manipulated research studies so they would produce the results desired from a marketing perspective, regardless of their underlying truth,
Since marketing claims needed to be backed-up scientifically, we occasionally resorted to 'playing' with the data that had originally failed to show the expected result. This was done by altering the statistical method until any statistical significance was found. Such a result might not have supported the marketing claim, but it was always worth giving it a go to see what results you could produce. And it was possible because the protocols of post-marketing studies were lax, and it was not a requirement to specify any statistical methodology in detail. On the other hand, the studies were hypothesis testing (such as cohort studies, case-control studies) rather than hypothesis generating (such as case reports or adverse events reports), so playing with the data felt uncomfortable.
Other practices to ensure the marketing message was clear in the final publication included omission of negative results, usually in secondary outcome measures that had not been specified in the protocol, or inflating the importance of secondary outcome measures if they were positive when the primary measure was not.
So to summarize, the marketers would control the statistical analyses, promoting multiple analyses to attempt to come up with the "right" result that would support the marketing message (although the more kinds of analyses one tries, the more likely one is likely to come up with false results by chance alone). Presumably the marketers did not care whether or not the results were really true, which is perhaps why even they felt "uncomfortable" in some circumstances.
They would also foster the suppression of negative results, and the dredging of data for extra outcome measures when analysis showed no advantage in terms of the real primary outcomes. Suppression of negative results could be viewed as plain lying. Deliberate analysis of multiple end-points again risks identifying random error as true results.
The Role of Key Opinion Leaders
The author described how key opinion leaders, that is, health care professionals thought to be especially influential on practice or policy, were hired to become marketers presumably without revealing this intention.
Every big international observational study had a large advisory board. This was critical since the success of a newly launched drug in the market would depend on how many key opinion leaders were part of the study. Not only would they add credibility to the results, but they would also be key in influencing decision makers and other prescribers. In regional studies with thousands of patients, the study’s advisory board was formed by at least one key opinion leader from each country in that region, ensuring that areas important in terms of possible sales were covered. The contributions of the key opinion leaders to the study were always positive, but in my experience more directed towards designing new studies to answer their specific clinical questions rather than critically appraising our results and conclusions. In general, the relationship was amicable. We took them to the best hotels and restaurants during our advisory board meetings, and they appeared as authors in our research. Later, they would act as the company’s 'ambassadors,' giving conferences, teaching doctors, or talking to the media about the benefits of the drug.
Note that even the anonymous author could not bring him or herself to call the key opinion leaders salespeople, or marketers, but used the ambiguous wterm "ambassadors." Nonetheless, the role of key opinion leaders described would clearly be that of marketers or salespeople. However, it is extremely doubtful that any of these KOLs felt they had to declare that they were paid salespeople when presenting at conferences, teaching doctors, or talking about the media.
I would suggest that their actions would therefore fit Transparency International's definition of ethical corruption, "abuse of entrusted power for private gain." The KOLs are entrusted to be professional, and in many cases, scholarly. Using a professional or scholarly guise to act as a salesperson appears to be abuse of that entrusted power, in my humble opinion. In nearly every case, KOLs are paid, often handsomely, by the companies whose products they are selling. Thus, key opinion leaders acting as described by the anonymous author appear to be ethically corrupt.
The evidence of unethical marketing practices by commercial health care firms is mounting. Although I am most familiar with evidence from the US, there is mounting evidence that these practices are global, often done by companies that are not US based, and meant to influence practice and policy world-wide.
As the evidence mounts, it becomes increasingly clear that many such marketing practices are corrupt, at least in an ethical sense. Whether they may break laws in particular countries is a question for someone else.
The latest BMJ article is a reminder how skeptical the shrinking group of health care professionals who do not have conflicts of interest, are not biased in favor of particular products, and who put patients' interests first must be about ALL published research, scholarly publications, and apparently educational activities. Advocates of true evidence-based medicine must be extremely careful to try to use the least biased and manipulated parts of the evidence-base.
The mounting evidence suggests that at a minimum, all research reports, scholarly articles, media reports, conferences, and educational programs should provide full, detailed disclosure of all conflicts of interest. Perhaps having to make a declaration like "I am paid 50,000 Euros a year by the marketing department of company X to help market drug Y" before a supposedly educational talk would make some health care professionals think twice about such relationships.
However, even such detailed disclosure may not be sufficient to hamper marketing practices that now appear overtly corrupt. In my humble opinion, it is time to consider a global ban on the funding or influencing of human research by companies and other organizations which stand to gain financially according to the results of the research, or whose products and services are subject of such research. It is also time to consider a global ban on the funding or influencing of health care education by such organizations.
However, so many people are making so much money from the current practices that I doubt such proposals would get much support, or even public notice beyond this humble blog.