Pfizer and other drug companies fund medical courses

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently published a comprehensive report that exposes a very questionable relationship between the University of Wisconsin-Madison college of medicine and the drug industry. Using the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an example, the report describes how pharmaceutical companies have infiltrated the nation’s universities by funding physician education courses. Critics argue that the arrangement is unethical; when a college accepts hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in funds for such classes, the patrons expect something back. So what might appear superficially as a philanthropic gesture is actually an arrangement with lots of strings attached — an arrangement, critics say, that amounts to huge conflicts of interest.

The Journal Sentinel explains that Wisconsin physicians must complete 30 credits worth of continuing medical education (CME) courses every 2 years by law. The courses, which UW offers online, earn doctors up to 2 credits per course. Of the 9 online CME courses, the Journal Sentinel found that 4 were funded by pharmaceutical companies. Doctors may take those courses free of charge, but must pay a fee to enroll in any of the university-funded courses.

Pfizer is one of the companies funding an online course at UW that instructs doctors how to help their patients quit smoking. Pfizer gave UW $12.3 million for the course, which showcases Chantix as the latest and greatest smoking cessation method. The course materials do not mention the serious risks of taking Chantix, even though numbers pulled from the Food and Drug Administration’s Adverse Event Reporting System revealed that Chantix topped the list of the country’s most dangerous drugs.

Chantix has developed a favorable reputation among some people who have successfully quit smoking while taking the drug, but it has also been linked to a number of suicides and other episodes of abnormal and psychotic behavior.

Another CME course on premenstrual dysphoric disorder offered by UW is also funded by Pfizer. The course was designed by psychiatrists who have financial ties to the drug company. The course cites Xanax as a form of treatment for the disorder, “but fails to point out that only 37% of women who took it had significant improvement, compared with 30% who got a placebo.

The course also does not mention Xanax’s side effects, including the potential of dependency,” said the Journal Sentinel. “Several of the drugs promoted in the course are not approved by the FDA to treat the condition and have serious side effects not mentioned on the course Web site, including depression, stroke and blood clots,” the paper reported.

The Journal Sentinel points out that no written agreement between the drug companies and the university exists, but reciprocation is nevertheless expected.

“What you are seeing in Wisconsin is just another example of what is going on all over the country,” Arnold Relman, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, told the Journal Sentinel.

“It’s unethical, and it is not in the public interest because it is going to bias doctors to use certain drugs,” he told the paper.

Daniel Carlat, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University Medical School, told the Journal Sentinel that “drug companies have found this to be a highly effective way to attract the attention of physicians.” To stay licensed, doctors must enroll in the classes. Therefore, companies such as Pfizer have a captive audience, he explained.

According to the Journal Sentinel, “Critics say the practice increases medical costs by encouraging doctors to write prescriptions for expensive brand-name drugs and by exaggerating the frequency and prevalence of rare conditions. It also promotes the use of drugs not approved for the ailments.”

Ten years ago, pharmaceutical companies spent $302 million on doctor education courses. In 2006, that amount had swollen to $1.2 billion.

“Drug companies have essentially hijacked the highest level of medical education we have in this country,” Carlat told the Journal Sentinel.