By Scott Hensley
The sheet just got pulled off some of the folks who work behind the scenes to create medical journal articles favorable to drugmakers.
The journal PLoS Medicine and the New York Times were able to get a slew of internal company documents collected in litigation over breast cancer risks from a hormone-replacement drug.
The Times explains how Wyeth, maker of Premarin, engaged a third-party firm to "outline articles, draft them and then solicit top physicians to sign their names, even though many of the doctors contributed little or no writing." In all, 26 papers produced this way made it into 18 different journals. Wyeth's role in organizing and paying for the work wasn't disclosed.
You can find the documents posted by the Times here. Zip to page 15, where you'll find some interesting emails between the medical writers, an influential doctor whose name eventually went on an article about treating hot flashes, and the company.
Dan Carlat, a psychiatrist and blogger who writes often about medical education, called out a quote by Mount Sinai's Joseph Ross in the Times story as the best yet at encapsulating the corrosive effect of company-orchestrated medical writing:
It's almost like steroids and baseball. You don't know who was using and who wasn't; you don't know which articles are tainted and which aren't.
Wyeth's clearly not alone. Ross and some colleagues wrote last year in JAMA about how ghostwriting pumped up the medical literature with papers about Vioxx, a painkiller Merck took off the market almost five years ago due to the risk of heart attack and strokes.