The Elusive Whole Story on Drug Research
By Gerri Elder
When the mainstream media reports about new drug trials and studies, they usually fail to let us all know when the drug company actually paid for the studies, according to a new review. It is important to know who paid for drug studies and research, especially in light of recent news about a Vioxx study (generic name: rofecoxib) actually being a marketing ploy by Merck.
The U.S. News & World Report reported that medical and mainstream new sources also tend to use the brand names for drugs rather than the generic names, and that this is also troubling.
The review, which was published in the October 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, says that this type of reporting doesn't give consumers the whole truth about medications and works to push doctors and patients towards the commercial interests of drug companies.
Study author Dr. Michael Hochman, a resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that he has become increasingly worried in recent years that research funded by the drug companies is not as trustworthy as other research.
He also notes that many doctors, patients and journalists have gotten into the bad habit of referring to drugs by their brand names. Hochman believes that drugs should be referred to by their generic name in order to keep commercial interests out of the doctor-patient relationship.
Journalist Weighs In on Drug Study Reporting
Andrew Holtz, an independent journalist who has served as the president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and is a former CNN medical corresponden,t says that funding sources for drug studies should be included in news stories where it is relevant. Holtz does say that the new study could be biased though because it only analyzed news stories of at least 200 words.
Holtz notes that news articles of 200 words or less are very brief, and he saw no correlation in the study between the length of the article and how thorough the article was in mentioning funding and generic and brand names. He notes that stories that are this brief are likely to be leaving out other important information as well, such as drug side effects.
Peer-reviewed medical journals have previously debated this very issue. Most of these publications now require that the authors of drug studies disclose the source of funding.
Analyzing Drug Study News
In the new study, authors analyzed 306 news articles about drug research. These articles were extracted from U.S. newspapers and online news sites. The authors also asked 100 editors at the most widely circulated newspapers across the country about their reporting practices. The drug studies that were looked at in this study had been published in five prominent medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine.
In 42 percent of the news articles, there was no mention of funding for the drug research coming from the pharmaceutical industry. In cases when it was mentioned, this important fact was not prominent in the article.
In 67 percent of the 277 articles that reported on medications, only the drug's brand name was used in at least half of the references. Study authors found that up to $9 billion is spent each year in the United States when brand name drugs are prescribed by doctors when a generic medication would do the job just as well.
The most interesting statistic in the study may have come from the newspaper editors themselves. Eighty-eight percent of the responding newspaper editors said that they thought that the articles that they published often or always mentioned drug company funding, when applicable. Also, 77 percent of the editors thought that the stories in their publication referred to medications by their generic names.
Only 3 percent of newspapers looked at in the study had formal, written policies regarding the disclosure of drug study funding and just 2 percent had policies regarding the use of the generic names of drugs.
New Reporting Policies Needed
Hochman believes that news organizations should have straightforward policies that they enforce regarding the use of generic names of drugs and the disclosure of drug study funding. He says there are many examples of how research funded by drug companies has been misleading.
He referred specifically to the defective drug Vioxx (rofecoxib). This arthritis drug was pulled from the market in 2004 because of increasing concerns of patient injuries, including heart risks.
The study shows that until changes are made in reporting practices, consumers need to pay close attention to reports and question studies and reports where there is no mention of exactly who funded the research. It seems that we're only getting the whole truth about prescription drugs 2 to 3 percent of the time.