How academic physicians are being used as live bait for journalists

Here’s something little known outside of the small circle of industry marketers, academic docs, PR flacks, and medical journalists: pharmaceutical and device companies (or their PR agencies) regularly offer to arrange interviews with well-known academic physicians to talk about new trials, drug approvals, and other items of obvious interest to the companies involved.

I receive these sort of invitations all the time. Here’s a redacted version of a recent email I received:

Hi Larry:

More than [VERY BIG NUMBER] Americans suffer from [COMMON DISEASE] and it is one of the few cardiovascular diseases on the rise. A new study, published online today by [FAMOUS JOURNAL], reveals there are gaps in the quality of [COMMON DISEASE] care provided to thousands of patients by cardiologists who don’t always follow guidelines for patient treatment.

As featured in [FAMOUS NEWSPAPER], the [BIG STUDY] is the largest [STUDY OF ITS TYPE] …

Would you be interested in learning more about the existing gaps in [COMMON DISEASE] patient care… Please let me know what you think and I could help arrange the following interviews:

Expert Interview:[FAMOUS CARDIOLOGIST], M.D., Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at [FAMOUS UNIVERSITY] and [FAMOUS STUDY NAME] study lead is available to provide a detailed analysis of the new study and the potential… to improve… patient care, which will ultimately reduce hospitalizations and save lives….

Sincerely,

[PR PERSON]

It almost seems too obvious to ask, but should independent academic physicians allow themselves to be dangled like live bait in front of journalists hungry for an easy interview? Of course, I’m not privy to the arrangements between the doctors and the companies, but it’s pretty clear that these doctors are either receiving substantial fees for their promotional work or the appearances are considered to be standard duties of investigators in company-sponsored trials. In either case, these “independent” doctors are reduced to cogs in the promotional machine.

Let me be clear: physicians should be free to comment on trials and other medical news events. But they shouldn’t be paid to do so by industry, and their comments should be based on the best interests of their patients, not the companies paying for their research.

In recent years I’ve made a point of refusing these offerings, but it’s surely the case that many journalists, on deadline and without much knowledge of a complex field, may find this sort of spoon-fed journalism quite enticing.

Here’s another example:

Larry,

I wanted to offer one of the lead researchers on [DRUG A] as a resource as this [DRUG B]-rival seeks final FDA approval ….  [FAMOUS DOCTOR  NAME] has led several pivotal studies related to [DRUG A] that were presented at AHA Scientific Sessions and ESC Congresses.

He can offer a clear perspective on how [DRUG A] will transform the way cardiac patients are treated, provide details on potential side effects and risks and talk about how the new drug may affect [DRUG COMPANY]‘s financial performance in the near future. More details on[FAMOUS DOCTOR  NAME]‘s research is below.  Please call [PHONE NUMBER] or email me if you’d like to speak to [FAMOUS DOCTOR  NAME].

Thanks,

[PR PERSON]

In addition to the same questions raised by the previous letter, the obvious question to ask here is whether physician leaders should be thinking about, much less discussing and pumping, the “financial performance” of the companies for whom they perform clinical trials? But perhaps it was always about business anyway.

Larry Husten is a writer and editor of CardioBrief.org.

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