Monday, December 23, 2013

On the European Front: Yet More Industry Corruption

I've so far restricted my periodic reports of settlements and guilty verdicts against the big drug companies to US-based actions. Dr. Roy Poses over at Health Care Renewal--
--being a more cosmopolitan sort of guy, picked up this news item, which he says got very little play in the US media.

Johnson & Johnson got hit with a more-than 10-million euro judgment and Sandoz with a 5 million euro judgment for anti-competitive activities around the fentanyl opiate-pain-killer patch. The patch was about to go off patent and Sandoz was poised to offer a generic equivalent, but instead, the two companies entered into a so-called cooperation agreement, which meant that J&J paid off Sandoz to delay their generic so that prices could stay high on the brand-name patch. This is a form of "evergreening" that we've seen frequently in the US, and apparently the Europeans don't like it any better than we ought to.

OK, so as we have seen in the past, a few million dollars is chickenfeed to these big firms. Dr. Poses goes into some detail on his blog about the former CEO of J&J, on whose watch this breach occurred along with numerous other illegalities, and how he retired with huge bonuses and a ton of J&J stock; and how the current CEO is already pulling down a big paycheck with no indication that any changes are occurring in how the company is managed. So far, same ol' same ol'--we have covered many times, as did Dr. Poses even more times, how no actual individual ever seems to be to blame for these misdeeds, and somehow the misdeeds just keep happening as a result.

But for our edification, Dr. Poses adds a bit of a new twist by reminding us of a partial rundown of the J&J board of directors:
  • Dr.Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan
  • Dr. Michael M.E. Johns, Chancellor of Health Affairs Emeritus at Emory University
  • Dr. A. Eugene Washington, Dean of the medical school and Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences, UCLA 
  • Dr. Susan Lindquist, Professor of Biology at MIT, former director, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
  • Dr. Mark McClellan, former head of both FDA and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, senior fellow, Brookings Institution

Dr. Poses suggests that even if the various corporate types on the rest of the board don't give a hoot about integrity or the well-being of patients, these people are supposed to have a set of values that takes such things seriously. But presumably the wrongdoers in high executive positions at J&J could not keep committing their sins, and then being richly rewarded for them, unless all these board members acquiesced in the practices. Which, in turn, suggests that the leaders of health care and of academic research cannot be distinguished from corporate execs these days. All these folks appear simply to take it for granted that once you rise to a certain level of power in the system, it's okay to extract all the money you can, no matter what the impact on public health or well-being.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What’s in the “Free” Sample Closet? Very Little of Value

I’ve blogged about the issue of sample drugs in doctors’ offices mostly in the earlier years of this blog, except for one post this past spring:

Now we can add a study published a while ago by a medical student, Kari Evans, from University of Arizona, and Drs. Steven Brown and Gerald Smetana:

 The folks (I’m guessing they sent the student) snooped into 10 sample closets of primary care offices in Phoenix and made a list of 23 different medications that they found in 7 or more of the closets. They then asked: Is this medicine novel? Is this medicine useful? They had formal criteria for judging each of these variables. They found that 22 of the 23 had a cheaper generic medication available for the same condition, and that only 3 medicines had scientific evidence of superior patient outcomes.

In short, had the docs not had these samples to give out to patients, it’s hard to imagine that the patients would have been any worse off, or that the docs would have missed a chance to become informed about an important breakthrough in medical science.

The study also nicely illustrated why companies give out “free” samples. The mean cost of a month’s supply of the 23 drugs was $178, with the highest-cost drug ringing up a bill of $749. If a patient can be hooked on these meds with free samples, and then the prescription is continued later on, you see how much the company stands to gain—especially knowing that almost all the meds have cheaper generic alternatives.
Just a bit more evidence as to why the sample closet ought to go—and if you’re interested in the issue in any depth, the article provides an excellent review of the previous literature.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

GSK Announces Major Changes--Is This for Real?

Hot news coming off the NPR wires:
Normally I like to take a while to report on breaking news, to be sure that things are as they seem and also to gather reactions from other observers, but this is big enough to warrant immediate comment in my view.

GlaxoSmithKline has already made history within the drug industry by changing its practices in the US for paying its sales reps--no longer paying bonuses purely on volume of sales. Now the firm announces that it is changing global practices--no more paying reps on volume anywhere; no more hiring doctors as paid speakers; no more paying doctors to attend medical meetings.

In short, the company has announced that it is discontinuing many of the business practices that industry critics have held most responsible for threatening the professional integrity of medicine, and in turn making pharmaceuticals a public health threat rather than a benefit.

Why now? asked NPR. Some theories--no point launching huge marketing campaigns when there are fewer important new drugs rolling off the industry pipeline anyway; pharmascolds have been successful in getting more docs to pull back from schmoozing with sales reps and taking their bribes; the Internet is turning out to be a more effective way of getting industry-friendly information to docs without the expense of a big rep sales force; the looming Federal Sunshine Act will cause docs to think twice about accepting industry largesse in the very near future.

Are we to take this announcement at face value? It's hard, when the industry has such an extensive track record of lies, to believe that at long last, Lucy is going to hold the football and actually allow Charlie Brown to kick it. Yet folks like me have been preaching for some time now that this is what the industry should do, and that it might even be in the industry's interests to do it. So it hardly seems appropriate then to take potshots at the industry if they actually do what we've been asking. If it's real.

We need, in short, better research on what's actually changing. For example, the last big "ethics" reform of the industry took place in 2009 when the US firms voluntarily gave up handing out the pens emblazoned with drug logos and all the other "reminder" items that used to clutter physicians' offices. And what was the actual impact of those changes? I can't point to any research studies that tell us. Of course, if change occurs today, it will naturally take a while for an investigator to do the research on the consequences, and even longer for the results to then be published. So we can cautiously welcome GSK's latest statements while withholding judgment till we see the evidence.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Congratulations, Pfizer, You Are Now Officially a “Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization”

Thanks yet again to Dr. Roy Poses over at Health Care Renewal—
--for picking up from some of our fellow bloggers this latest news tidbit about drug giant Pfizer.

In the past I have blogged (again thanks to Dr. Poses) about Pfizer’s rather amazing record of criminal wrongdoing:

I have also agreed that the word “corruption” is the correct term for much of what we see in today’s drug industry:

And finally, I recently commented on the book by Dr. Peter G√łtzsche in which he compares the drug industry with organized crime:

So, by way of commentary for anyone who thinks that all the above is unjustified piling on, Dr. Poses reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to review a 2010 conviction of Pfizer in which the company was found guilty to violating the RICO law, and therefore was found to constitute a “racketeering influenced corrupt organization.” With the high court’s refusal to hear an appeal, the original verdict now stands for all time.

As Dr. Poses has repeated until he is blue in the face (as probably most people in New England are these days given the weather they’re having), when an organization is found guilty of RICO violations, one normally expects that some of the people who run the place are going to end up in jail. We are of course still waiting for that day to come to the drug industry. In the meantime all the big execs will presumably continue to take home their multi-million-dollar bonuses.

More on Cholesterol Guidelines: Cochrane Lets Us Down

Dr. Roy Poses over at Health Care Renewal did a nice post on the cholesterol guidelines—
--that have been the subject of my two previous posts:

The basic question, you’ll recall, is: how did we end up with supposedly “evidence-based” guidelines that read like a script written by the drug industry to sell statins, when the most accurate and dispassionate reading of the actual scientific literature arguably tells us that 1) statins are way overrated as a way to prevent heart disease and 2) that to the extent that statins do work, it’s not at all clear that they work by reducing cholesterol levels?

Well, one way this happened is that a couple of meta-analyses (which don’t do any new research but rather re-evaluate studies previously conducted) which come from supposedly neutral and respectable sources have recently set up a big cheer for statins as effective primary prevention (prevention for people who don’t yet have established cardiovascular disease). One is the CTT that we’ve already gone over in some detail, for instance:

The other is a recent review from the Cochrane Collaboration. This organization is supposed to be the world’s gold standard for evidence-based systematic reviews. I tell medical students that they should generally look first to Cochrane if they want reliable evidence as to how well any medical treatment works. But for all the great work Cochrane does, and their generally impeccable results, they occasionally slip up, and some reviews have been discovered in the past to have been done by people with unreported conflicts of interest.

The review of statins for cholesterol seems to be one of their flops. Dr. Poses’ post, above, provides details as to why the methods used in their review are questionable. It has also been reported that at least one Cochrane review author had financial ties to the drug industry.

This has not stopped the pro-statin crowd from running with Cochrane as their main evidence for how wonderful statins are. Last week’s JAMA featured an editorial (subscription probably required) “Accumulating Evidence for Statins in Primary Prevention,” by an author who lists about a dozen financial ties to drug-makers. The editorial and the article on which it comments both rely heavily on the Cochrane review as their evidentiary centerpiece.

Normally, when pharmaceutical marketing reaches the level of “irrational exuberance,” we can depend on Cochrane to rein in the excess enthusiasm. It is very sad to see Cochrane instead pouring gasoline on the fire.

Robinson JG. “Accumulating Evidence for Statins in Primary Prevention.” JAMA 310: 2405-6, Dec. 11, 2013.

ADDENDUM 12/20/13: I have been waiting for some backup on the cholesterol guidelines issue from people who actually have the expertise to crunch the numbers. Here's a reply by our old friend Dr. John Abramson (Overdo$ed America) to a response offered to an earlier opinion piece that he co-authored, by the authors of the Cochrane review mentioned above. The reply further develops some of the criticisms of the Cochrane review.