So my esteemed colleague Marilyn Mann is surely onto something by passing along this news report: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=email_en&sid=aHjr0BP1zvgo, which basically shows how several big companies are hurriedly adding more lobbyists to fight against the Obama administration's plans to include comparative effectiveness research of pharamceuticals as a part of the economic stimulus package. We might ask: Just what is it about comparative effectiveness research that so frightens Pharma?
Some previous opinion pieces and news reports have distinguished between comparative ("head to head") trials which simply try to establish the superiority of one treatment over another, as opposed to those that explicitly take cost into account. Then the industry opposition is focused on the latter. From that example, it would seem that the industry is deathly afraid that we might figure out that some very slight improvements in outcomes are being purchased only at huge increases in cost. They'd much rather, for example, that we know that a new chemotherapy drug prolongs the life of the average cancer patient by 2 months; but not that it costs $150,000 to get that extra 2 months of life.
Now the argument against comparative effectiveness research (with or without costs explicitly taken into account) is based on one possible use of the resulting data, which we have to admit might actually occur. The sequence would go as follows:
- Comparative effectiveness research is carried out on drugs A vs. B.
- The research shows that drugs A and B are roughly equivalent in outcome, but B costs less.
- If you look very carefully at the research findings, you'll see that the average outcomes obscure a good deal of individual variability. A sizeable minority of patients actually do better on drug A.
- However, the payer for care (the government in the most-feared scenario; private insurers in today's scenario) seizes upon the uncritical reading of the data from the trial, and issues guielines that demand that physicians use drug B and that essentially eliminate any payments for drug A.
- Bottom line--a significant number of patients are denied the drug that would most help them, just so the skinflint insurers can save a few bucks.
Against the drug company orchestration of outrage are the moderate voices of good sense. Physicians today are starved for good data on what treatments work better than others--since more than 80 percent of trials of drugs are industry sponsored, and industry overwhelmingly chooses to compare drugs to placebo and not to already effective treatment. Everyone (except maybe the pharmaceutial industry) agrees that we can only have a sustainable health system in the future if we can rein in costs. If we want docs to help us to save money, it makes a heckuva lot more sense to ask them to save us money by doing less of what doesn't work, instead of trying to deny them the data about what works better or worse.
Against these voices of reason, drug companies are reduced to doing much what the AMA had to do in the 1960s when it tried to fight the Kefauver-Harris amendments that gave the FDA the responsibility to test the effectiveness and not just the safety of new drugs. The AMA was forced in that instance to act like scientific Neanderthals. They had to claim, for all intents and purposes, that the average physician in the boondocks was just as capable of deciding what drugs are effective as the scientist conducting a multicenter clinical trial. They had to claim that anecdotal evidence was just as good as any randomized controlled study. Similarly, today the drug industry has to stress how different everyone is from everyone else, so that the average results of comparative effectiveness trials are sure to be misleading. This of course, taken to its logical conclusion, undermines any reliance on evidence-based medicine.
I conclude from this sorry spectacle that the drug industry--which shouts so loudly that when it markets its drugs to physicians, it's really engaged in "education"--is in fact deathly afraid that we will someday find out how effective its expensive new drugs really are. That bodes very poorly for what we haven't yet found out amidst the marketing smoke screen that the industry has managed to proliferate around its products.