Do Drug Companies Really Influence Doctor’s Decisions Regarding Dispensing Drugs to Illinois’ Residents?

My brother is a physician and psychiatrist who frequently lectures on the benefits of certain drugs for prescription by family practice physicians, or other practicing physicians. At a recent gathering he reported that he played on the absurdity of drug companies distributing products carrying their name and logo by starting his speech by raving about his stay at the local chain hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare airport because they gave him a pen and notepad.

While my brother dismisses drug company’s efforts to win doctors over with pens and notepads, there is a lot of skepticism raised by watch groups about the impropriety of doctors promoting pharmaceuticals especially given the rise of pharmaceutical lawsuits. Recently, drug companies have been prevented from distributing pens, cups, and notepads with its insignia names or drug products. And while my brother and others in the medical field feel these types of freebies are harmless, there are other ways that pharmaceutical companies exert their influence that are much more serious.

The American Medical Students Association (AMSA) is now objecting to the influence of drug companies in medical schools’ educational curriculum. The case of a professor at the Harvard Medical School illustrates this point. In his class the professor promoted the benefits of a cholesterol drug and seemed to belittle a student asking about its side effects. It turns out that this particular lecturer, also a physician, was not only a full time member of the Harvard Medical School faculty, but a paid consultant to ten drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.

This occurrence caused students and staff at Harvard Medical School to launch a full blown movement against drug companies. This movement is supported by more than 200 Harvard Medical School students and sympathetic faculty members, intent on exposing and curtailing the drug industry’s influence in their classrooms and laboratories as well as Harvard’s 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes.

Dr. Mendoza, a Chicago physician, recalls his experiences in medical school, when drug representatives would take him and his fellow future doctors out to extravagant lunches. While he was inquisitive enough to recognize that the drug company “was not giving [him] the whole picture” and has since steered clear of drug representatives, but Dr. Mendoza might not represent the norm for doctors today.

A survey revealed that 1,600 of 8,900 medical school professors and lecturers reported that they or a family member had a financial interest in a business related to their teaching, research or clinical care that has to do with pharmaceutical companies. Of these physicians, almost 150 had financial ties to Pfizer and to Merck. Merck even went so far as to build a corporate research center across the street from Harvard’s new medical research center and class building.

Also, Merck underwrites work on the Harvard campus, including in its immunology lab, which is run by a doctor who also sits on the board of the drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb. This professor received nearly $275,000 in 2007 from her association with Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Some players in the medical field argue that the drug industry money is not only appropriate , but is necessary. “Without the support of the private sector, we would not have been able to develop what I call our bone team in our lab.”
But not all physicians feel this way. Dr. Marcia Angell, a Harvard faculty member and former Editor-in-Chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, is among the professors who argue that industry profit motives do not correspond to the scientific aims of academic medicine and that much of the financing needs to be not only disclosed, but banned.

This debate will not be resolved anytime soon as each side seems to be far from finding any sort of common ground.

Kreisman Law Offices has been practicing pharmaceutical litigation in Cook County and Chicago for over 30 years, serving areas such as Glenview, Villa Park, Brookfield, and Englewood.