Friday, December 19, 2003

On Conflict of Interest in Medical Research -  

Antony Barnett makes the case that some significant portion of the papers that appear in medical journals espousing the benefits of a particular drug treatment are not, in fact, written by the doctors whose name appear as authors on the paper. Instead they are written by medical writers in the employ of pharmaceutical companies whose drugs appear in the paper and the titular authors of the paper are then somehow compensated. Typically no acknowledgement is made of this gargantuan conflict of interest and the readers of the medical journal, and by extension us (their patients), are no wiser.

If indeed Barnett's case is true (as it seems to be in at least a few instances) this is a really disturbing development. Obviously these sorts of biased articles could have very real (and adverse) effects on patient care. Understanding the degree to which this practice is widespread is much more difficult. Barnett suggests that at least hundreds of articles have been so tainted. However he doesn't offer any source for this number, or, to be fair, any reason to think its not far more or less. While the number of such tainted papers has to be of critical concern to any potential medical patient (is the entire profession bought and paid for or just some small parts?), from a professional point of view even one such case makes clear the need to have strong institutional sanctions for such behviour: journals should refuse to publish papers from authors so tainted and professional bodies should revoke their licenses to practice medicine.
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