What started out as a just a physician’s opinion piece has become a mess of financial conflicts and industry connections.
Earlier this month, STAT published an op-ed by Dr. Robert Yapundich titled, “How pharma sales reps help me be a more up-to-date doctor.” The author extolled the benefits of having industry detailers keep him informed about new medications and encouraged lawmakers to make it easier for drug reps to share “objective” information (including off-label uses of drugs).
This isn’t a controversial opinion from Yapundich, who STAT noted is a member of the Alliance for Patient Access (AfPA), a group that supports expanding industry’s ability to promote off-label uses of medications. However, what Yapundich did not disclose to STAT was his financial conflicts, including receiving $332,294 from industry between 2013 and 2016.
But that’s not all. Health care journalism watchdogs Health News Review talked to Yapundich and found out he didn’t even write the article himself. Yapundich said the op-ed draft came from AfPA, but Health News Review traced the piece further back to public relations firm Keybridge, which does work for the pharmaceutical industry.
A few days later, Health News Review uncovered another example of undisclosed pharma ties to an op-ed, once again from STAT. A public relations company working on behalf of Hepatitis C drug maker Gilead asked patient Deborah Dushane to write an op-ed in favor of television drug ads. The PR company then coached Dushane and edited the piece, which was published in STAT in 2016 without disclosure of firm’s involvement.
We’ve seen the drug and device industries attempt to influence policy and public opinion in countless ways – by funding research, organizing and funding patient advocate groups, lobbying policymakers and giving campaign contributions, sponsoring journalism training, and more. Ghostwriting pieces for doctors is yet another tactic pharma is using to promote their narrative as an objective viewpoint.
While offering views on all sides of an issue is valuable, publishing pieces crafted by PR companies under the guise of a clinician’s point of view is destructive and unethical. It is up to the media to shine a light on pharma’s underhanded tactics, not give industry a free platform. To accomplish this, Kevin Lomangino of Health News Review calls for media outlets to “review the policies for external contributors, particularly authorship and disclosure requirements, and amend them if necessary to exclude ghostwriting and facilitate appropriate disclosure of conflicts of interest.”
STAT subsequently updated their op-ed guidelines to require contributors to disclose any help they received writing the piece as well as financial conflicts. The guidelines assert that STAT will not accept pieces written by advocacy groups or industry “when they hide their role behind the byline of a figurehead author.” Requiring disclosure is important, but other experts note that disclosure does not eliminate conflicts of interest; it just makes them visible.
“Disclosure is not an adequate remedy for commercial shenanigans,” said one public health researcher, “The letter of the new rules supports the same mixture of commercial content influence and academic-fronted attribution that debases some of the medical journal literature.”