Paid patient spokesman blows whistle on drugmaker

About Scott Hensley

Scott Hensley runs NPR's online health channel, Shots. Previously he was the founding editor of The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog and covered the drug industry and the Human Genome Project for the Journal. Hensley serves on AHCJ's board of directors. You can follow him at @ScottHensley.

An old journalism professor once told me, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Same goes, unfortunately, for patients praising their treatments. Some are being paid to do so.

A front-page story in The Wall Street Journal pulls back the curtain on paid endorsers with a profile of Andy Behrman, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Bristol-Myers Squibb gave him $400,000 for testimonials about Abilify, an antipsychotic.

In a company video, Behrman says he experienced no side effects when taking Abilify, unlike other drugs he had tried. But he’d only taken Abilify for four days before shooting the video. Within a year he discontinued the medicine after side effects, including dazed spells, became too much for him. Even so, he continued talking favorably about Abilify.

The company disputes many of Behrman’s claims and tells the paper that “its experience working with patients has been uniformly good,” including an ongoing campaign featuring patients’ stories about prevailing over disease.

Philip Dawdy, a journalist who blogs about mental illness, offers an alternate explanation, based on his own experience. “The mental health system and mythologies around mental disorders are so strong that longtimers like Behrman and I often became trapped by them,” he wrote on Furious Seasons. “It’s like we were taught to forget about our bodies in deference to mood control. Perhaps with that in mind, you might understand why Behrman was slow to rage against problems caused him by Abilify.”

For more, watch this WSJ video, which includes snippets from Behrman’s work for Bristol-Myers.

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