Medical ghosts

The Baltimore Sun

Doctors are expected to have nothing but their patients' best interests at heart as they dispense treatment and advice. Companies that sell pharmaceuticals and medical equipment are driven by profits; they're part of an almost $1 trillion-a-year global industry. The two groups rely on each other, but the symbiotic relationships that have developed between doctors and drugmakers present conflicts that can no longer be ignored.

The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed last week that the drug company Merck publicized research studies about its ill-fated drug Vioxx that were not written by the high-profile medical scientists whose names were attached to those studies. Merck disputes the charge of dishonesty, although the company acknowledges that it hired outside writers to draft reports that later carried prominent doctors' names.

As reported in The Sun last week, insiders say this form of ghostwriting is widespread in medical circles. Dr. Catherine D. DeAngelis, editor of JAMA and a former vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said that as a faculty member, she was "approached many times" by companies wanting her name to appear on research she hadn't conducted.

For too long, a cozy relationship has existed between the medical profession and various industries whose interest in promoting health is, by definition, secondary to their interest in selling products. Academic doctors so often accept industry funding to perform research, do consulting, attend meetings and sit on corporate boards that few eyebrows are raised at the inherent conflict of interest in such a state of affairs. But eyebrows should be raised, and a small number of prominent doctors now say they will no longer accept corporate funding of any kind. We hope this ripple turns into a tidal wave. The Merck controversy may end up being just what the doctor ordered to end this insidious practice.

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