Medical Ghostwriting-Great Marketing Tool for Big Pharma

For years now, pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers have hired professional writers to “ghost” articles about their products and placing the names of prominent doctors and professors on the “scientific” articles. It’s been a great marketing tool for the drug companies and medical device firms since they get to tout their wares in established, reputable journals. It’s also been good for the doctors who get published without having to do any of the work. It’s not so good for the general public and other doctors who thought they could rely on such journal articles to treat their patients.
Senator Charles Grassley understands the grave ethical and health consequences and has apparently decided to do something about it. In a letter written last week to the National Institute of Health, Grassley called on the organization to curb the practice of ghostwriting. As the NY Times noted this morning, this is a significant move since NIH funds most of the country’s medical research. So far, the NIH has been reluctant to intervene. However, with pressure from Senator Grassley, it may have no choice but to act.
Recent issues concerning the issue of ghostwriting make one believe the problem is widespread. The NY Times interviewed one doctor who isn’t comfortable with the practice.
“Just three days ago, I got a request to be the author of a ghostwritten article about the effectiveness of a cholesterol-lowering drug,” Dr. James H. Stein, professor of cardiology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, said this month. “This happens all the time.” He declined to attach his name to the paper.
The medical ghostwriting issue gained prominence with the infamous fen-phen diet drug taken off the market in 1997. Yet, the same company remains under scrutiny for hiring a professional writing company to write 60 favorable articles concerning one of its menopause drugs. The company, Design Write, had as its stated goal to downplay the risk of breast cancer linked to hormone drugs while promoting the Wyeth products as beneficial.
The problem with the ghostwriting projects is that they are not truly independent. The companies hired to ghostwrite the articles are paid handsome sums of money to act as marketing tools for the drug companies and medical device manufacturers. This puts doctors at risk and consumers in harm’s way.