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Study: Hidden Conflicts of Interest Permeate Medicine

Three investigations reveal the influence of industry money in patient advocacy groups, treatment guidelines, and Twitter feeds. 

Jan 19, 2017
Diana Kwon

PIXABAY The pharmaceutical industry’s influence extends to as patient advocacy groups, Twitter feeds, and guidelines submitted to federal agencies, according to a series of studies published January 17 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Susannah Rose of the Office of Patient Experience at the Cleveland Clinic surveyed roughly 300 patient advocacy groups and found that 67 percent of these groups received money from for-profit companies in the past year. Among the groups that got industry money, 12 percent received more than half their funding from industry.

“The question here is: 'Is the organization working for the money? Or, is it really working for the best interests of the people it's supposed to serve?” Rose told MedPage Today. She added these groups may be tempted to endorse expensive drugs that do not necessarily benefit the people they serve, and may even engage in “cause marketing,” which is when patient organizations are paid to give a “seal of approval” to a product.

Another group, led by G. Caleb Alexander of Johns Hopkins, found that industry-backed organizations were less supportive of the guidelines for opioid prescriptions released by the Centers for Disease Control last year. The group investigated comments from 158 organizations and found that within the 20 percent of negative critics, many were organizations backed by opioid drugmakers—and none of these groups disclosed their financial ties. "More people are dying than ever before from these products, and it's important to know how the market is shaped by the spending of drug companies,” Alexander told NPR.

In a third study, a team led by Vinay Prasad, a hemotologist-oncologist at Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland examined 650 Twitter feeds of U.S. oncologists and found that, although 80 percent had ties to the pharmaceutical industry, none of these physicians disclosed their financial conflicts in their social media biographies. Nonetheless, the team’s preliminary data suggests that a “sizable percentage tweet about drugs made by companies that they take money from,” Prasad told MedPage Today.

“Industry wants to put as many thumbs as possible on the scale. They fund researchers, patient advocacy organizations, right-wing organizations,” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. told Reuters.

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