When writing about medical studies, reporters should always ask researchers about any financial relationships with drug companies or device manufacturers. That was one of the main lessons from a panel on conflicts of interest on Saturday at Health Journalism 2014.
Starting in September, sunshine provisions in the Affordable Care Act will require drug companies to disclose most payments to doctors. Some companies have already started to publicize their financial relationships with doctors. But most medical journal articles do not give accurate information on researchers’ potential conflicts of interest, said panelist Susan Chimonas of the Institute of Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University.
“You shouldn’t be uncomfortable asking these questions,” Chimonas said. “They owe you this information. They owe everyone this information.”
The second speaker, John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and MedPage Today, told the story of how he has spent the past few years investigating conflicts of interest, particularly regarding the device company Medtronic. He discovered that doctors with financial ties to Medtronic reported twice the success with their spinal product compared to doctors who didn’t. The paid doctors “overplayed the benefits and understated the complications,” Fauber said.
He suggested that reporters investigating a new drug or device should find the relevant transcripts from the hearing of the federal advisory panel on the FDA’s website. Reporters can then find questions and red flags that scientists and experts brought up in the hearings. If the story involves a public university, ask for the disclosure forms for all of the doctors involved in the study.
Panelist Paul Levy, who runs the blog Not Running a Hospital, has written about doctors who pose in ads for private companies and offered some story tips. He said reporters can check their local hospitals to see if they promote robotic surgery for hysterectomies, and then write a story including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ recommendations against the technology.
One attendee suggested that reporters check out billboards around town touting hospitals’ superior care and investigate the claims. Fauber agreed, citing an example of a hospital that advertises its cardiac credentials but is not qualified to treat heart attacks and transfers such patients elsewhere.
Paul Offit, M.D., the keynote speaker at Saturday’s awards luncheon, asked the panelists about the perception that doctors’ relationships with industry are inherently bad, saying that disclosure “seems to have gone from transparency to bias.” He said that pharmaceutical companies are often the only entities capable of funding the high costs of drug development and testing.
The panelists agreed that some relationships between medical schools, doctors and drug companies are appropriate. But research shows that doctors are influenced by their financial ties to business, and those who take advantage at the risk of patient harm have spoiled the concept, Fauber said.