Lisa Rosenbaum's second article (1) in a series of three appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine this week. It continues the theme that bias is more complicated than following the money (or pens or pizza slices). It was interesting to note the response to the original article. On at least one blog a poster apparently Googled Dr. Rosenbaum in order to point out all of her potential conflicts of interest. It probably would have been more relevant to look at the standard International Committee of Medical Journal Editors disclosure form on file at the NEJM. But it does provide a good example of one of the references in this week's piece - financial disclosure (or in this case suspicion) as an ad hominem approach to evaluating science. In a similar vein, one of the authors of a previous NEJM editorial pointed out that the science has to stand on its own merit independent of disclosures or credentials.
The initial part of the article points out a fact that has always seemed pretty obvious to me. Association is often used to suggest that there are significant meaningful conflicts of interest. The oft quoted statistic is that 94% of physicians have "relationships with the industry". This includes counting drug samples or donuts in the workplace as a significant relationship. One of my previous employers decided that all hospital employees should participate in "donut rounds" and not just the physicians. I viewed this as a pseudo-egalitarian managed care tactic, but by definition that means that 100% of the employees at that hospital had a "relationship with the industry". The article also points out that physicians who request drugs be included in a formulary are also more likely to have industry relationships than not. I have a history of being on two separate Pharmacy and Therapeutics (P&T) Committees of a major healthcare system and a major hospital where the overriding biases were drug cost and deals with pharmaceutical companies. There were major changes on a year to year basis due to price differences in the cost of commonly prescribed drugs and they were often based on the flawed assumption that all drugs in the same class are equivalent. On the other hand if an exclusive deal could be made, that company might also be able to combine that with a preferred deal for a more common drug. It was a curious situation where decisions that were supposed to be science based were not. The P&T Committee was biased by the managed care industry operating strictly on a cost basis.
I decided to part ways with the P&T Committee on the day we were presented with forms to fully disclose all of our finances to assure there were no conflicts of interest. The usual hype about how we were all cherished guardians of the public trust was included. I thought about it for a second and looked around the room. There were approximately 15 MDs and 4 PharmDs on the committee. Some of the brightest and most well read staff in the organization. I ran the hypothetical through my mind: "What are the odds that if I owned stock in XYZ Pharmaceutical that I could convince my 20 colleagues that it was a good idea to put their most expensive drug on the formulary just based on my word? What are the odds that I could overcome the predominate bias of the financial well being of the company that employed all of us? What are the odds that if I accomplished those first two unattainable goals that I would actually see a profit in my XYZ Stock?" I also thought about the drug approvals that we did based solely on public relations considerations. Drugs that were practically worthless, but that were demanded by advocates for incurable diseases. The explicit decision was that we did not want to run afoul of some of the very vocal advocates for those illnesses. It would be bad public relations and press. I looked back at the 5 page disclosure form and decided that I was not going to play that game. I was not going to pretend for one second that I needed to be vetted by an organization that apparently saw itself as destined for sainthood. I walked away at that time. I had long been familiar with the other bias listed in the Rosenbaum article and how any disclosure at a CME presentation could result in mockery or discreditation. It is difficult enough to present the pertinent information to an audience who may want to be entertained without being the butt of jokes as a sponsored presenter. Any way you look at it my behavior was a reaction to a modern day witch hunt mentality and I was not about to be declared a witch. Even beyond that, I was not the only "clean" person in the room. Getting heavy handed about a conflict of interest disclosure as a public relations gimmick after many of us had already figured it out 20 years ago was more than a little insulting.
Rosenbaum also discusses a previous study from the NEJM (2) that as far as I can tell has not received press anywhere else. In this study, the authors designed identical fake clinical trial report abstracts of studies with varying methodological rigor. The studies had three possible funding disclosures - the pharmaceutical industry, the NIH or none. In this experiment the internists involved in the study were less likely to read the entire report, less likely to prescribe the study medication, and less likely to see the experiments as rigorously conducted if they were sponsored by industry rather than the NIH. They were half as likely to prescribe medications recommended in an industry sponsored trial than an NIH sponsored trial. The authors were naturally concerned that physicians would be skeptical of even high quality but industry sponsored trials and that might slow the acceptance of that information in clinical practice.
In an interesting study done by the industry that same year, a team (3) at the biotechnology firm Amgen examined 53 studies that were considered to be 'landmark' preclinical studies in the field of oncology. The goal was to see if they were reproducible. The findings could be confirmed in only 6 or 11% of these papers. The non-reproducible research led to hundreds of secondary articles and in some cases led to research that exposed patients to agents that resulted directly from the original research. A team (4) at Bayer HealthCare did a similar review of preclinical studies to identify potential drug targets and concluded that only 25% of the work was reproducible. That same article referenced the general industry rule that up to 50% of published results from academic settings cannot be reproduced in an industrial lab. The Amgen and Bayer HealthCare studies suggest that is really an underestimate of what amounts to academic bias. A common criticism leveled by Big Pharma critics is that they have benefited from all of the taxpayer funded basic science research at the NIH. These studies suggest that there are plenty of problems with that research independent of funding stream and that they are less rather than more likely to lead to drug discovery.
In addition to unique information to examine the issues of bias (the author lists many more), she also points out the origin of the word Pharmascolds (5) as those who "vilify the medical products industry and portray academics working with it as traitors and sellouts". The authors here describe an inadequate public response from both the companies and the physicians who were criticized. The full text of the reference is available online.
This is another highly informative article by Rosenbaum which demonstrates that analyzing conflict of interest is not as easy as some members of the press and some professional critics make it out to be. She gives a great example of an 85 year old woman who needs an aortic valve replacement and what the considerations might be based on the characteristics and biases of two different Cardiologists assessing this situation. It is even more complex in a setting where some would be quick to refer the woman to a hospice service. In my experience outlining all of the potential biases in that situation is a significant task and one that few physicians would attempt.
Some day a more measured discussion of conflict of interest might provide a better approach. Until then be skeptical of any critics who suggest that it is inappropriate for a physician to have a relationship with the pharmaceutical or medical devices industry just based on the face of it. And for any physicians out there who want to take the most conservative path to avoid unwarranted criticism, stay out of the Sunshine Act database.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
1: Rosenbaum L. Understanding bias--the case for careful study. N Engl J Med. 2015 May 14;372(20):1959-63. doi: 10.1056/NEJMms1502497. PubMed PMID: 25970055.
3: Begley CG, Ellis LM. Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research. Nature. 2012 Mar 28;483(7391):531-3. doi: 10.1038/483531a. PubMed PMID:22460880.
4: Prinz F, Schlange T, Asadullah K. Believe it or not: how much can we rely on published data on potential drug targets? Nat Rev Drug Discov. 2011 Aug 31;10(9):712. doi: 10.1038/nrd3439-c1. PubMed PMID: 21892149.
5: Shaywitz DA, Stossel TP. It's time to fight the 'pharmascolds'. Wall Street Journal. April 8, 2009. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123914780537299005 accessed on May 17, 2015.