Study shows commercial influence of doctors runs surprisingly deep

When your doctor prescribes you a medication, are they doing so because it’s something that is going to improve your health significantly, or is their motivation purely financial? It’s a question a lot of people ask themselves when their doctor is pushing a treatment on them, especially when they don’t feel particularly sick or at risk. Now, a study published in BMJ Open is adding fuel to that fire as it shows that overdiagnosis and overtreatment are surprisingly common following pharmaceutical marketing events.

In the study, researchers looked at three conditions that are commonly overdiagnosed and over-treated: osteoporosis, depression and overactive bladder. They looked at events sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry in Australia across a four- year period. In total, they identified 3,132 events with roughly 96,660 attendees.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they discovered that just a few companies were sponsoring the bulk of such events. For example, more than 70 percent of the depression events were sponsored by just two companies, while more than 80 percent of the overactive bladder events were sponsored by two main companies.

These events often targeted primary care clinicians and provided them with dinner. Many of the sponsors’ products are not considered cost-effective options for the condition in question, but that hasn’t stopped doctors from prescribing the treatments.

Professional education for those in the medical field needs to be free of commercial sponsorship. Whether the influence is direct or indirect, there’s no question that pharmaceutical companies are swaying doctors’ decisions in a way that isn’t necessarily helping their patients – and in some cases, it could even be harming them as the side effects of some medications are quite serious.

Many times, the drug companies are greatly exaggerating their benefits while downplaying their side effects. For example, after researchers examined data used by GlaxoSmithKline to market their famous antidepressant Paxil, they found that the drug was not effective for adolescent depression, and it also caused serious side effects.

Dangerous marketing practices are behind the opioid crisis

If you want an example of just how horribly wrong this approach can go, take a look at what has happened with the opioid epidemic in America. The FDA’s commissioner when OxyContin was approved, Dr. David Kessler, now admits it was a major mistake, calling the decision “one of the worst medical mistakes.” At the time, its maker, Purdue Pharma, sent promotional videos to roughly 15,000 doctors in which they claimed OxyContin was less than 1 percent addictive.

This was later proven to be false, of course, and look at where we are now. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, with more than 130 people dying each day from an opioid-related overdose. They estimate that 11.4 million people misuse prescription opioids.

Not surprisingly, Purdue Pharma tried to shift the blame, with ex-president Richard Sackler writing in a confidential email that “we have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

Actually, the reckless criminals are the companies that were so blinded by greed that they lied about the safety of their drugs and shamelessly promoted them to doctors, wining and dining them and coercing them to get countless people hooked. A study in JAMA Network Open found that drug makers paid out nearly $40 million to doctors for meals, speaking engagements, and travel, and those counties that were targeted the most by such marketing efforts also had the greatest numbers of overdoses.

This behavior has to stop. It’s disturbing to think about how many more people could die before something is finally done about drug companies giving doctors kickbacks and helping themselves rather than their patients.

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