Policing Big Pharma’s Influence Over Doctors’ Treatment Guidelines

Ronnie Cohen, Undark: February 4, 2019.

Dr. Samir Grover was taken aback when, early in his gastroenterology career, he saw one physician speak two times and present contradictory conclusions about the same medication. Each time, the speaker presented identical data on a drug used to treat inflammatory bowel disease. First, he recommended the pharmaceutical. A week later, he deemed it ineffective. “How could this exact same data be spun in two very different ways?” asked Grover, a professor at the University of Toronto. One fact did change — the drug manufacturer that sponsored and paid for the lecture.

It’s no secret that drug makers pay doctors to hype their products to other doctors. But few outside the halls of hospitals witness physicians bending a single set of facts in opposing ways. After watching similar acts of statistical wizardry throughout his nine years of medical practice, Grover set out to investigate a more sweeping question about conflicts of interest. Do they infect clinical practice guidelines? Professional societies produce thousands of these documents every year. They steer the decisions of health care professionals and insurance companies about how to prevent and treat an ever-widening range of conditions — from diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease to arthritis, hepatitis, cancer, and depression.

Grover and his colleagues’ paper and a companion study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggest that simply following clinical practice guidelines could lead doctors — even those who shun all industry gifts — to unwittingly dispense financially tainted medicine. More than half of the authors of guidelines examined in the two studies had financial conflicts of interest. In many cases, the doctors who wrote the guidelines were paid by the same companies that produced the drugs they recommended. In addition, a significant portion of the doctors who took pharmaceutical money failed to disclose the payments, many of which amounted to $10,000 or more.

The consequences of financial entanglements can be profound, warned Dr. John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Writing guidelines is like prescribing something to millions of people,” he said. For their part, medical societies acknowledge the need for impartiality in the guideline-development process. Yet many view the task of disentangling industry from clinical practice guidelines as challenging, maybe impossible. Grover believes that panels can do better, particularly when it comes to disclosing conflicts. Still, he said, “it would be very hard to find experts, particularly for high-grossing medicines, to be completely devoid of conflict.”

Grover’s study examined financial conflicts of interest for the authors of 18 clinical practice guidelines that provided recommendations for the 10 highest grossing medications of 2016. The blockbuster drugs included treatments for hepatitis C, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease. Nearly one third of the authors declared receiving payments from companies marketing one or more of the top-revenue medications. A separate study underscored Grover’s findings. It examined industry payments received by the authors of 15 gastroenterology guidelines published from 2014 to 2016. More than half of the gastroenterology guideline authors received money from industry. In both studies, the payments could be funds for clinical trials, or they could be for travel, honoraria, or speaking fees.

The payments could bias guideline authors’ votes on prescription recommendations, and they could also prompt guideline authors to try to sway the votes of other committee members, said Matt Vassar, the study’s senior author and a professor at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. Prior research suggests that doctors who receive pharmaceutical money and gifts have different prescribing patterns than their peers who don’t. A 2016 study of nearly 280,000 doctors showed that those who attended a single industry-sponsored meal, with an average value of less than $20, were more likely to prescribe a brand-name medication promoted at the event than alternatives within its class.

“Doctors who take money from companies tend to prescribe drugs from these companies more — quite a bit more,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “We have to assume the same for doctors on guidelines teams.”

Especially worrisome to Vassar was his finding that the vast majority of the gastroenterology guideline authors failed to disclose industry payments that were reported in a federal database. Grover, too, discovered a lack of disclosure among guideline authors in his study — more than a quarter with conflicts failed to report payments they took from companies marketing one of the top 10 drugs. The undisclosed payments ranged from $1,638 to $102,309. For Grover, “the issue is not the conflict,” he said. “The issue is the transparency and adequately and appropriately noting conflicts.”

For Dr. Daniel Brauner, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, simply disclosing conflicts isn’t a cure-all. A geriatrician, he regularly sees patients suffering from what he believes are the consequences of specialists with conflicts writing clinical practice guidelines. “It’s over-prescription and a lack of really looking out for patients,” he said. When doctors adhere to multiple clinical practice guidelines, “older patients end up being on ridiculous numbers of drugs that will interact with each other and cause harm.” Yet doctors feel compelled to follow the guidelines, Zuckerman said. If they don’t, and their patients fare poorly, they can be sued for malpractice.

Ioannidis argues for a barrier blocking industry’s participation in clinical practice. “It’s fine to do research with industry funds,” he said. But then someone else should write the clinical guidelines. How can you be objective, he asks, “when every sentence you write may affect your own revenue, your own success, your own reputation?”[…]

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