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Milwaukee paper keeps hammering on conflict of interest

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done it again.

This tough “medium market” (if I can call it that) newspaper faces tough economic times by scrapping to do more tough journalism. Just two weeks ago we blogged about one of their stellar health journalism efforts.

Yesterday they published a 1,700-word story (that’s rare these days) raising more conflict of interest questions at the University of Wisconsin medical school. It begins:

The conclusions were clear: Women who took hormone therapy drugs were at increased risk for breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots.

The findings were so strong that researchers stopped a clinical trial in 2002, five years early, because it would have been unethical to continue giving the drugs to women.

But that same year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health began a medical education program for doctors that promoted hormone therapy, touted its benefits and downplayed its risks.

For the next six years, thousands of doctors from around the country took the online course that was funded entirely by a $12 million grant from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which makes the hormone therapy drugs used in the study, Prempro and Premarin.

The university received $1.5 million of that total, and university faculty received money as well.

Even after the course was no longer available, the Web site and course material remained on the Internet, accessible to consumers and doctors. The university dropped the site Jan. 15, one day after the Journal Sentinel began questioning UW officials about the propriety of the program.

The influence of drug companies on doctors – and, by extension, medical schools – is coming under increased scrutiny, with critics saying programs like the UW one are essentially marketing exercises.

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