Medical Ethics : The Campus Invasion of Big Pharma

Graphic by Mike Licht / NotionsCapital

Big Pharma and Medical Ethics

Drug companies are ‘funneling money through universities for advertising and trying to disguise it as education.’

Dr. Gerry Lower / The Rag Blog / March 9, 2009

The New York Times reports that “In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who was concerned about side effects.”

Zerden did a bit of Google searching online and he began sharing his findings with classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.

David Tian, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student, said: “Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it’s something that’s purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education when that information is also presented for marketing purposes.”

This is the unjustifiable degree to which corporate influence has invaded even our medical schools in the U.S. Zerden’s minor stir four years ago has since grown into a full-blown movement with more than 200 Harvard Medical School students and sympathetic faculty, “intent on exposing and curtailing the industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories.”

Big Pharma does not have a very good reputation in testing new drugs for safety and it has no interest in and does not do a very good job of assessing relative efficacy, i.e., CER, comparative effectiveness research), mostly out of fear of losing market share.

As argued in Newsweek, “doctors have long resisted having science guide their practice. That’s obvious from the disparity in clinical practices from one region of the U.S. to another.”

One solution?

“An unbiased source of data, not drug companies, could really help us in primary care. There have to be allowances for individual differences, but you need standards.”

No kidding.

In dealing with this extraordinary lapse in medical ethics, one approach is to deal with the symptoms of the problem, e.g., pass laws forbidding contributions from Big Pharma to medical school faculty members so as to curtail the conflicts of interest that would not exist without Big Pharma.

Consider that drug companies are “funneling money through universities for advertising and trying to disguise it as education. For example, from 2002 until 2008, Wyeth funded an online course promoting hormone therapy at the University of Wisconsin. Thousands of physicians took the course, backed by a $12 million grant.

The course “touted the benefits of hormone therapy and downplayed its risk” in a program described as “pure, undisguised marketing.” The increased risks we are talking about here are an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots.

Even the director of the course, on the take to Wyeth, admitted that the hormone material was “presented in a more positive light” than she would have preferred. But, what the hell is one supposed to do?

Dealing with symptoms, of course, has never cured anything, providing only relief at best, because we need to be dealing with the cause of the symptoms. In getting to the core of this problem in medical ethics, it must be pointed out that this scenario did not “just happen.” It was overtly promoted under the dominion of greed-driven capitalism.

It is not individuals who are unethical by nature, it is the entire capitalist socioeconomic system that is unethical by design, as well as being immoral on the international front (e.g., the Bush administration’s preemptive attack on Iraq). It is best all left behind.

The fact that right wing Roman politics have been “voted to the edge of political irrelevance,” must be taken into consideration here as well. If the Republican Party fails utterly, as it seems destined to do under the “leadership” of Rush Limbaugh, the world will have to fill the void with human rights and democracy. That would be our only chance to get medicine back into the hands of physicians and government back into the hands of the People.

“Physician, Heal Thyself.”

Please see the following references for this story:

The Rag Blog

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3 Responses to Medical Ethics : The Campus Invasion of Big Pharma

  1. Mariann says:

    Well, I would just as soon do without “new or special” drugs in the great many cases where existing drugs are perfectly adequate. Too much of Big Pharma’s research budget goes to deeloping “cures” for nonexistent or just-part-of-life “ailments”, or so-called improved — and much more expensive meds — when old ones are working well, instead of focusing on finding remedies for now untreatable diseases, including those that affect a disproportionate share of poor and Third World people. It’s the same story as in every economic sector: people who were making good money weren’t satisfied with that, they had to have more and more and more, by any means necessary, including, for Big Pharma, bilking patients with dangerous, unnecessary, poorly-researched, and poorly-understood nostrums.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The goal to “get medicine back into the hands of physicians” reflects physicians’ centuries long project to corner & preserve a monopoly on “credible” healthcare. Big Pharma is certainly guilty as described, but is not the only player with economic and power incentives. Media, educational institutions, medical associations, and public expectations play a part in the US’ disfunctional drug dance.

  3. Janet G says:

    Medical research today is fully funded by the pharmaceutical industry, and pharmaceuticals by definition are harmful and toxic. That is why you have to have a doctor’s prescription, and why changes in diet and exercise generally will do more to improve your health than any pharmaceutical.

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