Ghostwriters for medical researchers?

When a student puts his name on something he didn't write, we call it cheating. What about when a doctor does it? To me, it's still cheating - and people like you are the victims.

According to a new report that's about to be published in a leading medical journal, Merck - a major Big Pharma company - actually wrote their own research reports for one of their drugs, and then found prestigious doctors to put their names on the published research. That's right: the so-called "objective" doctors allegedly put their good names on research that was conducted BY the drug company that was to be used to help SELL that drug company's product.

It's a shameful revelation for the entire medical profession. But sadly, this practice has been one of the dirty little secrets of the medical community for years. What's even more embarrassing is that the facts in this report were unearthed as part of the lawsuits over the Vioxx catastrophe from 2004. If you'll recall, Vioxx was a top-selling pain drug until research linked it to heart attacks. The result was a monstrous $4.85 billion settlement for thousands of former patients, and a massive black eye for Merck.

The report's lead author is Dr. Joseph Ross of New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "It almost calls into question all legitimate research that's been conducted by the pharmaceutical industry with the academic physician," Ross says. He's right.

As for Merck, the Big Pharma giant has naturally gone into self-defense mode (I'm sure the loss of that $4.85 billion has made them a little skittish). They've acknowledged that they sometimes hire outside medical writers to draft research reports prior to handing them over to the doctors whose names actually appear on the reports. But Merck insists that it's untrue to say that the doctors whose names are on the report do little of the actual research and analysis that's published. Merck claims (or, more precisely, Merck's lawyer claims) that the final report is the product of the doctor named as the author and "accurately reflects his or her opinion."

Yeah, right.

More likely, it accurately reflects what he's willing to be paid vast sums of money to say. Of course, Merck is not the only one backpedaling here. The doctors who are the so- called "authors" of these reports are also claiming that the allegations in Ross's article are false.

An editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) says, "It is clear that at least some of the authors played little direct roles in the study or review, yet still allowed themselves to be named as authors."

But the blame for this mess goes everywhere - even to the indignant and self-righteous folks on JAMA's editorial board. After all, JAMA actually published one of the Vioxx studies that's cited in Ross's article!

It's a mess to be sure. And, as Ross says, it calls into question nearly everything that's published on the topics of drugs. I find it incredible that it seems doctors can be so willing to put their reputations on the line - reputations that they took years to build - all for a few extra bucks.