Tag Archives: pfizer

Pfizer’s online community about aging fails to impress blogger

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), a Colorado-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, and as such curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on aging issue resources and tip sheets at judith@healthjournalism.org.

If you don’t know about Ronni Bennett’s blog – Time Goes By: what it’s really like to get older – you should.

Core Topics
Health Reform
Aging
Other Topics

It’s one of the most consumer-centered sources of information about aging on the Internet. For the most part, it’s written by people experiencing this stage of life firsthand, not those studying or writing about it from a distance.

Bennett was a longtime journalist before she ran into what she calls “a wall of age discrimination” and ended up forcibly retired. The blog expresses her values: Drop the pretense, tell it like it is, and steer clear of advertising and sales pitches.

Bennett describes the site’s genesis this way:

“It was launched in 2003 after I had spent seven or eight years on a personal research project to find out what it’s like to grow old. There wasn’t much good news. From the popular press to scholarly and medical journals, books, government, advocacy groups and NGOs, one message stood out: aging equals decline, disease and debility. No one had anything good to say about it.

Refusing to believe that my future would be that sad and bleak, and since no one else was was doing it, I decided to write about what it’s really like to get old. I had no illusions then that there would be much audience for such a loser topic but in time, I was happily proved wrong.”

If you spend time on the blog, you’ll find an abundance of riches. In addition to regular posts from Bennett and other contributors, there is a carefully compiled list of blogs by and about elders – a gold mine for reporters. There is Bennett’s touching description of her mom’s final illness and death, a subject that all kinds of writers have been tackling recently in various publications. (More on this later in another blog post)

And there is a weblog, the Elder Storytelling Place, where people can share their day-to-day experiences with humor, tenderness, practicality, or any other approach that seems fitting. I especially like the way Bennett introduces this section:

“Among Carl Jung’s seven tasks of aging is to find meaning in one’s life and one way to help in this task is to pull together, piece by piece, one’s memories – great and small – into a coherent storyline. In doing so, there is a natural shift of our attention inward, says Jung, leading to the removal of regret and to reconciliation. In telling our stories we not only fulfill Jung’s task for ourselves, we pass on the wisdom we have gained to those who listen or read.”

I thought of Time Goes By this week when I encountered the media buzz accompanying a new initiative called “Get Old,” funded by drug giant Pfizer and supported by advocacy organizations such as the National Alliance for Caregiving and Easter Seals.

(See the press release here. For selected media coverage, see the Washington Post‘s write-up and CBS Money Watch’s and USA Today‘s.)

The centerpiece of this project is a new website, www.GetOld.com. In press release speak, the site is touted as a “first-of-its-kind online community” where “people can get and share information, add to the dialogue, and contribute to the growing body of knowledge” about aging.

I imagine Bennett might object to that description. And I’m darned sure she’d object to Pfizer’s sponsorship of this venture as well. (See her recent post, “No Way to Treat a Crabby Elderblogger,” if you have any doubts.)

It’s a savvy move on Pfizer’s part, aligning itself with all those consumer organizations, adopting an attitude of listening to people with an open, curious mindset, positioning itself as a company that helps people live longer and enjoy new experiences. But do not deceive yourself for even an instant: The goal here is to bolster the Pfizer brand and, ultimately, sell more of the drugs that the company links so effectively with longevity and quality of life.

If you have any doubts, see this Pfizer-sponsored video on the company’s “Smart Marketing Page” for the “Get Old” campaign. (I must be getting old: I’ve never encountered a Smart Marketing Page before. I use caps here, as in the press release, to emphatically express the importance of such a page.)

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to judith@healthjournalism.org.

Maybe all the participating consumer organizations have received assurances that no cleverly disguised sales pitches will appear on www.GetOld.com and that all information deriving from this project will be unbiased. But, fellow journalists, do you trust that will be the case? And why did so many stories about this initiative ignore that issue and swallow the Gallup & Robinson survey results – the news peg in the press release designed to secure media coverage – hook, line and sinker?

Update:

Bennett sent me some comments about the “Get Old” site after I let her know I was writing this post. I’ve edited them below for length.

“Mostly I object to the website. What a disaster. It violates just about every established guideline for useful, readable, entertaining websites, so much so for elders in both design and content that it’s an insult to us.

As you undoubtedly know, individual elders age at dramatically different rates than people in younger stages of life so that sometimes an 80-year-old’s decline – as in eyesight, for example – can be no more than that of a 50- or 60-year-old. Other times, a 60-year-old can have aged as much as an average 80-something. This also applies to one’s emotional, intellectual and psychic development.

So to section the website by age makes no sense at all, especially when they encourage readers to register their ages so that they can, as the site states, “provide you with stories and information that are relevant and customized for you.” It just doesn’t work that way when talking about elders.

Long before old age, by 40 on average, the majority of us wear reading glasses. But Pfizer has made the text so tiny on their section-front pages, there is no way to know the subject of the item before clicking on it and, even then, the topic is often unclear.

As people age, their eyes have trouble distinguishing between certain colors when they abut one another: red/orange, for example, and blue/green. Yet Pfizer – on that awful “jumble” page of unreadable topics – mixes blue and green boxes that too many elders will blend together.

The site fails aesthetically from page one; there is nothing inviting there, nothing engaging, nothing to pique anyone’s interest. It’s badly conceived and executed.

Barlett & Steele uncover chaos, peril of global drug industry

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In Vanity Fair, Donald Barlett and James Steele have devoted more than 6,000 words to chronicling the gaping holes in the global pharmaceutical industry, particularly as pertains to the globalization of clinical trials. Even if you’re familiar with many of the specific incidents covered, their cumulative effect, driven home with forceful and authoritative prose, is brutal. Each paragraph holds another tale of trials gone wrong, children killed and bad results that somehow never came to the attention of American regulators.

globePhoto by amyvdh via Flickr

It used to be that clinical trials were done mostly by academic researchers in universities and teaching hospitals, a system that, however imperfect, generally entailed certain minimum standards. The free market has changed all that. Today it is mainly independent contractors who recruit potential patients both in the U.S. and—increasingly—overseas.

They devise the rules for the clinical trials, conduct the trials themselves, prepare reports on the results, ghostwrite technical articles for medical journals, and create promotional campaigns. The people doing the work on the front lines are not independent scientists. They are wage-earning technicians who are paid to gather a certain number of human beings; sometimes sequester and feed them; administer certain chemical inputs; and collect samples of urine and blood at regular intervals. The work looks like agribusiness, not research.

After neatly setting up each pin with demonstrations of how international the pharmaceutical industry has become, then proceed to knock them all down with examples of industry impunity and FDA weakness.

The F.D.A., the federal agency charged with oversight of the food and drugs that Americans consume, is rife with conflicts of interest. Doctors who insist the drug you take is perfectly safe may be collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company selling the drug. … Quite often, the F.D.A. never bothers to check for interlocking financial interests. In one study, the agency failed to document the financial interests of applicants in 31 percent of applications for new-drug approval. Even when the agency or the company knew of a potential conflict of interest, neither acted to guard against bias in the test results.

Related

WikiLeaks cables: Pfizer used dirty tricks to avoid clinical trial payout in Nigeria

Did PLoS suffer from COI in ghostwriting article?

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Remember that examination of Wyeth (now Pfizer)’s ghostwriting practices that ran in PLoS Medicine a few weeks back? Well, Pharmalot’s Ed Silverman reports that things got a fair bit weirder, thanks to an accusation from Wyeth/Pfizer that the article’s author suffered from her own undisclosed conflict of interest. The article mentions author Adriane Fugh-Berman was a paid expert witness in the trial against Wyeth through which the documents were exposed, but never discloses that she’s still engaged as such.

Silverman got in touch with Fugh-Berman, who said she would clarify her status.

Things get a bit muddier when company representatives allege that the journal was intentionally using the article fodder for an anti-Pfizer lawsuit. Silverman does a good job of explaining the whole situation.

Related: Say what? Pfizer calls PLoS out on conflict of interest

Disciplined docs turn up on Pfizer payroll

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

New Scientist’s Peter Aldhous and Jim Giles created an interesting mash-up of two popular health stories, disciplined caregivers and conflicts of interest, by matching a set of Pfizer disclosures on payments to doctors and researchers in 2009 with discipline records from the FDA and the country’s most populous states. They found 26 matches on the state level and four from the feds, matches which accounted for about one in every 50 Pfizer-paid doctors in the states they’d investigated.

They assembled a number of anecdotes for the story, but the most telling related to a physician who was disciplined for faulty research related to a Pfizer drug, yet still paid by the company to lecture on it.

Other Pfizer experts ran into trouble during their research. Among them is Thomas Gazda of Scottsdale, Arizona, who was paid to lecture about Geodon after being reprimanded by the FDA over irregularities in his conduct of a trial of the same drug’s use in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder – one of whom was given more than the maximum allowable dose for five days. The FDA had earlier told Pfizer to exclude Gazda’s data from the results submitted by Pfizer during its efforts to win approval to use the drug for this purpose.

AHCJ has extensive resources for folks looking to do both sides of the mashup, with tips for investigating conflicts of interest from John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and recommendations for looking into disciplined caregivers from ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber.

Feds take aim at off-label marketing

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jeanne Whalen writes that a recent string of charges against drug companies, including heavyweights like Pfizer, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, shows that a decade of aggressive prosecution hasn’t deterred them from some shady marketing practices. [Article require subscriber access]

Whalen says the promotion of off-label prescriptions is still at the core of the most common offenses, and that, according to says Patrick Burns, director of communications at Taxpayers Against Fraud, problems are most likely to crop up “when drug companies are promoting therapies that are similar to others on the market.”

pills
Photo by somegeekintn via Flickr.

Whalen reports that the Justice Department, which often relies on corporate whistleblowers to spark investigations in this arena, has made such cases a priority.

“Combating health care fraud is a top priority of the Department of Justice,” said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Division

Drug companies have apparently taken notice. GlaxoSmithKline recently started “capping its annual payments to U.S. doctors at $150,000 and publishing the figures” while AstraZeneca’s CEO said the crackdown had made pharmaceutical companies “more sensitive than we’ve ever been” when it comes to preventing illegal drug promotion. Whalen writes that these steps may not be enough.

But Shelley Slade, a former Justice Department lawyer who now represents corporate whistleblowers through the firm Vogel, Slade & Goldstein LLP, in Washington, D.C., said large criminal monetary penalties and civil settlements don’t appear to deter companies sufficiently. “It’s not going to stop until the government puts some of these executives in jail,” she said. “Many of these companies view the fines as a small fraction of what they have gained through illegal schemes, and just a cost of doing business.”

Pfizer to pay $75mil for unethical Nigeria drug trial

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Independent‘s Daniel Howden reports that, for about $75 million, Pfizer has settled cases related to a disastrous unlicensed medical trial in Nigeria. The trial involved the experimental broad-spectrum antibiotic Trovan trial on 100 Nigerian children trapped in the midst of a devastating outbreak. Pfizer called the trial a humanitarian mission but did not get the consent of parents or the Nigerian government.

trovan
Howden tells the story of the trial itself, which Pfizer conducted near a legitimate Doctors Without Borders clinic:

From the crowd that had gathered at the Kano Infectious Diseases Hospital, 200 sick children were picked. Half were given doses of the experimental Pfizer drug called Trovan and the others were treated with a proven antibiotic from a rival company.

Eleven of the children died and many more, it is alleged, later suffered serious side-effects ranging from organ failure to brain damage.

Pfizer’s defense, meanwhile, was almost as sketchy as the trial itself:

Pfizer has denied this and says consent had been given by the Nigerian state and the families of those treated. It produced a letter of permission from a Kano ethics committee. The letter turned out to have been backdated and the committee set up a year after the original medical trial.

Finally, Howden notes that the legal wrangling isn’t over yet, thanks to a court ruling dictating that Pfizer could stand trial in the United States as well.

Foundation lived by big pharma, now dies by big pharma

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Kris Hundley of the St. Petersburg Times reports that the Ischemia Research and Education Foundation, which maintained a massive patient care database intended to prevent heart attacks and strokes during and after surgery, is teetering on the brink of financial collapse. While his foundation relied on drug company grants for much of its funding, “monumentally stubborn and notoriously prickly” founder and leader Dr. Dennis Mangano insisted on IREF’s right to publish any and all of its findings, a move he said maintained its independence.

Despite its ties to pharmaceutical companies, Mangano’s foundation made some impressive discoveries, Hundley lists a few highlights:

He found that taking low-cost aspirin after bypass surgery reduces the risk of heart attack. He sounded the alarm about the deadly risks of using Bayer’s drug Trasylol to control bleeding during bypass surgery — nearly two years before the FDA suspended marketing of the drug.

And he warned that Pfizer’s painkiller, Bextra, raised the risk of heart attack and stroke in bypass patients. Bextra was pulled from the market in 2005.

The relationship between pharmaceutical companies and IREF seems to have always been an uneasy one. IREF’s recent troubles began when a rogue employee shared data with Pfizer for which the drug giant would otherwise have had to pay $15 million to $20 million. Mangano refused to settle with the company, instead taking it to court and winning damages totaling almost $60 million.

Now, a judge’s ruling has given Pfizer a second chance and Mangano says he can’t afford to match Pfizer’s resources in the courtroom a second time. He says his suit against Pfizer has made him a “persona non grata” in the pharmaceutical industry and thus cut off what used to be the foundation’s primary source of funding. IREF has gone from 80 employees to just three, and is bleeding money at an unsustainable rate.

Pfizer tentatively tackles tweets

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

James Chase reports in Medical Marketing & Media that Pfizer has opened a Twitter account, @pfizer_news. The pharmaceutical behemoth will use the microblogging service for interacting and opening dialog with customers, rather than for product promotion or advertising, Chase reports. While Pfizer has been monitoring Twitter for months, executives were afraid to engage directly for fear that they would be “ripped to shreds” by the Twitterati.twitter_logo

“We’re trying to become transparent, but we’re doing it slowly and cautiously,” said (Ray Kerins, VP worldwide communications). “For us to jump in with two feet would be stupid. The first task was to get the communications team cleaned up because we’ve had a bad rap in that area.”

Pfizer hopes to increase its social media presence, but plans to do so cautiously and in gradual steps.

For now, Pfizer’s media relations team is charged with controlling all corporate tweeting, but Kerins said he hopes to expand the pool soon. “I would love to have by the end of the summer 100 people, from medical to public affairs, who have been anointed by the company and who can go out and Twitter.”

As of Monday morning (July 27), @Pfizer_News had gained 565 followers and was in turn following 225 users, many of them major media outlets.

Panel: Is media to blame for pharma’s poor image?

Several months ago, Ray Kerins, a top Pfizer public relations exec, bemoaned the perception of the pharmaceutical industry in a speech that was widely viewed on the Internet. Here’s what he said:

“When we’re dealing with the media, I see a problem. If we’re not willing to engage, we only have ourselves to blame. I blame myself and those of us in the industry for the bad reputation the pharmaceutical industry has. We develop life-saving medicines that you take, that will prolong your life, that will help cure certain diseases. How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation? It makes no sense.”

He then disclosed that, prior to his arrival at Pfizer, the PR team routinely ignored initial media calls.

Of course, such policies only contributed to a larger problem – the growing debate over pricing, promotional practices and safety concerns that have been at the center of several controversies over the past few years. From ghostwritten journal articles and hidden clinical trial data to surreptitious funding of advocacy groups and senior citizens unable to afford their meds, the pharmaceutical industry has found itself on the defensive. The tales have played out in court, at congressional hearings and in the media.

But does the media really have it right? Are drug makers, basically, well-behaved entities, not counting some regrettable lapses? Or does the pharmaceutical industry hide behind its right to make profits as an excuse for failing to adopt more palatable business practices?

To explore the issue, the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists next month will hold a panel discussion at its conference in the UK on whether the industry’s image reflects the reality of self-inflicted wounds or the trumped-up product of journalists who are seeking a villain. Does that sound familiar? It should to our regular readers — a similar panel is planned in November in Monaco at the annual meeting of the International Forum on Mood and Anxiety Disorders.

And the panel has some interesting members: Vera Hassner Sharav, a consumer activist and industry critics who runs the Alliance for Human Research Protection; John Ilman, a former journalist at various UK papers who now runs a pr crisis management firm that serves, in part, drugmakers; Michael Rawlins, the chairman of the UK’s National Institute of Health & Clinical Excellence, which is famous for rejecting government coverage of certain meds due to cost; and Paul Stoffels, who oversees global research and development for Johnson & Johnson.

Expect some fireworks.