“There is no medicine without medicines” write Ben Goldacre in his new book Bad Pharma. To Goldacre, an author, journalist and physician, this cause is personal. The title, a reference to both his first book, Bad Science, as well as the pharmaceutical industry’s nickname Big Pharma, is a bit of a misnomer. While the focus is pharmaceutical companies and their actions, there are a number of enablers in the health care system – medical journals, regulators, and even medical professionals, all of whom have put the industry’s needs ahead of good medicine. According to Goldacre, the damage is pervasive and deep, right to the roots of modern medicine. These problems know no borders, and affect us all. Despite the different health care systems that exist worldwide, we all depend on for-profit pharmaceutical companies to develop and market new medicines. These companies collectively wield enormous clout, due in part to the remarkable success of medicines over the past several decades. The global pharmaceutical market will probably top $1 trillion (yes, 12 zeros) this year. And Goldacre argues the industry is not only compromised, it is broken. And over 400 pages, he defends the following paragraph:
Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion. In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works ad hoc, from sales reps, colleagues and journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are, too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most party they have failed; so all of these programs persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all.
We all have our own biases, and I should disclose mine. I’m a pharmacist who has seen HIV go from a death sentence to a chronic disease, thanks to newly developed drugs. I’ve watched cancers like leukemias be effectively cured, thanks to medication. And I’m amazed that surgeries like double-lung transplants, impossible in the past, are now a reality, thanks in part to drug treatments. Yet I’ve also spent more than a decade reviewing the efficacy and safety of prescriptions drugs. Regrettably few are truly innovative. Many are approved with lingering questions about long-term safety and effectiveness. The value some offer can be questionable. I’ve also seen tremendous harms caused by drugs – from individual patients who have suffered horrible adverse drug reactions to population-level disasters like the Vioxx (COX-2) debacle. And I haven’t ignored the countless fines levied on pharmaceutical companies for bad, and sometimes even criminal, behavior. With its repeated capacity for self-sabotage, the pharmaceutical industry is its own worst enemy. My colleagues who work in the pharmaceutical industry agree. They’re smart, honest people that genuinely want to help get good treatments to patients. They’re embarrassed by what they see. So while I have no doubts about the astonishing track record of innovative new drugs that have transformed medicine, I also have no illusions that drug companies always behave in ways that support science-based medicine. And I think there is the potential for the industry to do much better. So how do we get this? (more…)