Media Doesn't Often Mention Pharma Funding on Research

TUESDAY Sept. 30, 2008 -- The mainstream media often fail to report when drug company funding is used for studies of medications, a new review found.

What's more, there's a tendency among both medical and mainstream reporters to use brand names, rather than generic names, when referring to specific medications.

And both of these factors work to skew public and medical opinion toward commercial interests, according to the review, published in the Oct. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This, despite newspaper editors' assertions to the contrary, the study authors found.

"As a doctor, I am increasingly worried in recent years that company-funded research can't be trusted in the same way that other research can be trusted," said study author Dr. Michael Hochman, a resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass. "[Also], all of us, doctors, patients, journalists, have gotten into a bad habit of referring to medications by their proprietary brand names. At a philosophical level, I think we need to be referring to them by the generic name. We want to keep commercial interests as much out of the doctor-patient relationship as possible."

"Funding sources should be included in every story where it's relevant," added Andrew Holtz, past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, former CNN medical correspondent and now an independent journalist. But, he also pointed out, the new study itself may be biased because it only included in its analysis stories of at least 200 words.

"Two hundred words is not a very long story and I didn't see in the study anything about whether there was a correlation between length of article and how thorough the article was in mentioning funding and generic and brand names," Holtz said. Such stories, he added, may be leaving out other important information as well, including, for instance, the side effects of a particular drug.

Peer-reviewed medical journals earlier engaged in a similar debate and most now require that study authors disclose funding sources.

The authors of the new study analyzed 306 news articles about medication research from U.S. newspaper and online sites, and they also asked 100 editors at the most widely circulated newspapers in the country about their reporting practices. The studies that were analyzed had been published in five prominent medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Forty-two percent of the news articles did not state when drug research had received funding from the pharmaceutical industry. And when they did, it was often buried in the text.

Sixty-seven percent of 277 articles that reported on medications only used the drug's brand name in at least half of the references to the medication. According to the study authors, up to $9 billion is spent each year in the United States when doctors prescribe brand name drugs although a generic would do just as well.

Yet 88 percent of the responding newspaper editors thought that articles they published often or always mentioned company funding. And 77 percent of the editors thought their stories referred to medications by their generic names.

Three percent of the newspapers had formal, written policies regarding disclosure of company funding, and 2 percent had such policies regarding the use of generic names of drugs.

"News organizations, in my opinion, really should have explicit written policies that they enforce," Hochman said. "We always need to disclose how a medical study is funded. I'm particularly concerned about commercial studies. We have many examples of how company-led research led us astray."

Hochman referred specifically to the Vioxx (rofecoxib) scandal; the arthritis drug was withdrawn from the market in 2004 because of concerns that it increased heart risks.

As for preferring generic drug names -- many of which are unpronounceable, even for experts -- over brand names, Hochman conceded that will be an uphill battle.

"It's a problem but we're not going to change it unless we take the hard step of trying to learn generic names," he said.

More information

Visit the Association of Health Care Journalists for more on how medicine is reported.

Posted: September 2008


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