It’s time to separate Medicine and the Drug Industry

Correction Appended

It was in 1949 that Elvin Stakman, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, issued the membership their marching orders: “Science cannot stop while ethics catches up.”

And sure enough, from bombs to clones, the ethicists have generally kept to the rear of the scientific parade: they are the ones with the big brooms trying to restore order after the floats and the elephants go by.

Those brooms sweep slowly. Often, by the time the ethicists finish laying out facts and weighing relevant moral values, the worst of any given crisis has passed. But recently, those who work in medicine have moved closer to the fray: they staff acute-care hospitals and monitor events in real time, aiming for a little less retrospective philosophy and a little more damage control.

In this proactive spirit Howard Brody, a medical ethicist, has brought his discipline’s tools to the relationship between the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. This problematic tangle of moral compromise (or triumphant health-promoting collaboration, depending on your point of view) has inspired several polemics by physicians in recent years, all of them straightforward indictments of the pharmaceutical industry and its for-profit webs.

Dr. Brody is also a physician, but he aims for the measured cadences of the ethicist instead, calmly laying out the relevant facts and then reasoning from basic principles to determine whether the medicine-pharmaceutical relationship, as it stands now, is an ethical one or not.

That Dr. Brody manages to deliver a hundred-odd pages of determinedly objective analysis before he, too, lets the righteous indignation roll should not really be called a failure of methodology: even as he carefully lays out the facts in this impressively comprehensive book, those facts begin to speak damningly for themselves.

The small-time operations that grew up into modern medicine and Big Pharma joined together back in the late 19th century, allied in the name of scientific medicine against a variety of dubious health-care entrepreneurs. The A.M.A. actually called the early pharmaceutical companies the “ethical” drug makers, to distinguish them from unscrupulous patent-medicine peddlers.

Over time, this casual alliance has been reinforced with such complex and often invisible bonds that, in Dr. Brody’s title metaphor, medicine and pharma are now “hooked” like two pieces of Velcro, tethered by a million barbs and as dependent on each other as any addicts are on their substance of choice.

Dr. Brody systematically analyzes the levels of connection, from the lowly drug salesman buying lunch for a roomful of medical students (future customers all) to the lucrative contracts and patents that simultaneously fuel medical research, fill corporate coffers and give us, as the industry doggedly and quite correctly points out, dozens of truly miraculous life-saving drugs.


CreditWilliam Duke

Many of these interactions are probably now familiar to most readers: the omnipresent logo-bearing trinkets festooning medical offices, the free samples of the latest, most expensive drugs, the “ask your doctor” television ads.

Less familiar may be some of industry’s other friendly overtures: the lavish junkets and cash rewards for some “high-prescribing” doctors; the subtle manipulations of research data; the way-too-generous financing of postgraduate medical education; the very cozy relationship with the Food and Drug Administration and its physician consultants; and a casually Orwellian interference with the average physician’s prescription pad.

A drug salesman recalls for Dr. Brody the time his company asked a local doctor to evaluate various sales presentations for a particular drug: “He’d been selected because our data showed that he was a relatively low prescriber. …Basically, the company was willing to bet $500 or $750 that if he heard the same drug pitch all day, by the end of the day he’d be so brainwashed that he could not possibly prescribe any other drug but ours.”

All this mutual back-scratching would be fine if patients’ interests were indeed being served. But ample data indicates quite the reverse. Patients, after all, are the ones who pay for expensive drugs when cheaper would do as well, and the ones who swallow dangerous drugs nudged to market by their manufacturers.

Many individual problematic drugs make an appearance here. Chloromycetin, a toxic antibiotic from the 1950s, was relentlessly promoted by its manufacturer for routine use until the day its patent expired. (Still available in generic form, it is now used only as a last resort.) Thalidomide never caused an epidemic of birth defects in this country, as it did in Germany, only because a single stubborn F.D.A. officer was dissatisfied with the drug’s safety profile, despite the manufacturer’s repeated assurances that everything was fine.

The epitaph of the recently withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, whose virtues were subtly spun to the medical community in prestigious research journals, is still being written in litigation around the country.

“Research that is driven by marketing rather than by scientific aims would seem, in the end, to be low-quality research,” Dr. Brody comments mildly about the Vioxx fiasco.

His overall conclusion is similarly low-key: “A profession is not just a way of making money; it’s a form of public trust. …Medicine has for many decades now been betraying this public trust.”

It is not a particularly surprising conclusion, and, in fact, there is relatively little in this book to surprise anyone familiar with the territory. Rather than new material, it provides a meticulously referenced compendium of all the relevant history and commentary (including, for full disclosure, excerpts from one of this reviewer’s columns in this newspaper).

Its breadth translates into a lack of depth in some areas, especially the final section, in which Dr. Brody tries to outline a feasible solution to the mess. His suggestions are cogent but a little skimpy, given that absent an act of God, it will probably take an act of Congress to pry medicine and industry apart someday, preferably as part of thoroughgoing health care reform.

Still, for a detailed overview of this very jagged terrain, if not for a map of the pathway out, a better general guide than this one is hard to imagine.

Correction: April 30, 2007
A book review in Science Times last Tuesday about “Hooked: How Medicine’s Dependence on the Pharmaceutical Industry Undermines Professional Ethics,” by Howard Brody, misstated part of the publisher’s name. It is Rowman & Littlefield, not Bowman.

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