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Wyeth chooses profits over ethics

premarinWe’ve all heard of ghostwriters. They get paid to write an article or book for someone else, and that someone publishes the work as his own. (You didn’t think all those famous people who write books are really good writers, did you?)

Ghostwriting gets more sinister when the anonymous writers are being paid by pharmaceutical companies to write scientific papers that supposedly reputable researchers then put their names on.

Until now, my biggest issue with Big Pharma was their underwriting of studies that included their products. At least when those results were published, the authors disclosed that their research was funded by Company X.

But that wasn’t good enough for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, who was cashing in big time a few years ago on the popularity of hormone replacement drugs like Premarin. According to a New York Times story, they hired a ghostwriting company to write papers touting the benefits of hormone replacement therapy and then got doctors to put their names on the papers and submit them for publication in reputable medical journals — without any mention of Wyeth’s participation.

Obviously there are some major problems with this. Doctors and researchers who submit papers for publication are supposed the be the actual authors of those papers, as well as the people who did the work, made the analysis, and reached the conclusions therein. A paper written by some anonymous someone is simply not creditable. Nor is the researcher who would put his or her name on such a paper.

What are we to think, then, knowing our doctors routinely get their information from such papers? They have no way of knowing if their favorite medical journal was duped into publishing a paper secretly commissioned by a pharmaceutical company. And the journal has no good reason to question an apparently legitimate paper submitted by reputable researchers.

Wyeth has, for profit, abused and subverted a system built on trust and professional reputations. How many more pharmaceutical companies are out there doing the same thing? It may be a good thing that doctors and patients view their information sources with a more critical eye, but it’s disturbing to think that once again the public’s health has been put at risk so that a greedy corporation might profit.

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