WebMD, Eli Lilly and a quiz about depression

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the prolific writer of public letters who often assumes the mantle of health consumer advocate, is at it again. This time he’s taking on consumer health information giant WebMD, whose ties with Eli Lilly seem to stretch back for some time. At issue is a WebMD quiz that purported to determine a user’s risk of depression. The fishy part? Until WebMD modified the quiz following Grassley’s letter and other outcry, even users who answered “no” to every question would be given the warning that “You may be at risk for major depression.”

As Daniel Carlat points out on his blog, the following disclaimer appeared at the top of the page: “This content is selected and controlled by WebMD’s editorial staff and is funded by Lilly USA.” As Carlat points out, 9 of the 10 symptoms in the quiz are taken from standard diagnostic criteria, but the one that isn’t (which relates to physical pain) just happens to dovetail perfectly with the pain-relief market Lilly is trying to carve out for Cymbalta.

Because Lilly markets Cymbalta as the “go to” antidepressant for patients who have both depression and physical pain. This is not really a “depression screening test” at all. Instead, it is a “Cymbalta-requester” screening test.

WebMD is telling the public a big lie. The say that “this content is selected and controlled by WebMD’s editorial staff” when in fact the crucial aches and pains questions was selected by Eli Lilly’s marketing team to encourage patients to ask their doctors for Cymbalta.

Grassley’s letter requested that WebMD respond with the details of their relationship to Eil Lilly by March 4. I didn’t find any evidence that such a response has yet been received.

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