Industry influence is "an infection" – international criticism of Pfizer-funded journalism workshops

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Next week, the National Press Foundation offers an “all-expenses-paid, educational program on cancer issues” for journalists, with all expenses paid by Pfizer.

I’ve written several times about my criticism of this approach.

The National Press Foundation has offered to let me speak at next week’s event or at a subsequent all-expenses-paid program for journalists on Alzheimer’s disease also underwritten by Pfizer.

I’m unable to attend either event because of prior commitments, but suggested to NPF that they ask Merrill Goozner to speak instead. He’s right in Washington, has written and lectured about conflicts of interest in health care, and was available. Goozner told me he has not been contacted. So, since I can’t attend and since critical voices probably won’t be represented at the first workshop, I have posted some video clips of what others might have said if given the opportunity.

Last week, at an international “Selling Sickness” conference in Amsterdam, I talked with several international observers who brought new critical perspectives to the discussion.

Australian journalist Ray Moynihan, who has written books and given many talks about industry influence on medicine, says this practice is “like an infectious disease and maybe we need some sort of treatment.” He says that a foundation that accepts drug company funding for journalism workshops – and journalists who accept such support – are “supporting the marketing strategies” of the drug company funding the effort.

Dr. Peter Mansfield, who heads Healthy Skepticism, Inc., describes medical industry-influenced bias as “an infection that people may not be aware of.” (My interview with him did not focus on this journalism training issue, but his comments were nonetheless relevant to the discussion.)

Dr. Joel Lexchin is a professor in the School of Health Policy and Management at York University and an Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. He has been a consultant for the province of Ontario, various arms of the Canadian federal government, the World Health Organization, the government of New Zealand and the Australian National Prescribing Service. Lexchin says the defensive reaction of the National Press Foundation – and of journalists who accept the all-expenses-paid “fellowships” – is predictable and is very similar to what industry-influenced doctors often say.


Paul Raeburn, on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, wrote about his criticism of the Pfizer-NPF deal yesterday in reaction to my blog post.

Then today he added a followup, after perusing the NPF website listing of donors. Excerpts:

“When the National Press Foundation says in its annual report that it is funded, in part, by “concerned corporations,” it’s right on the money. You can bet that Pfizer, Merck, and the others are concerned about what appears in the press!

The National Press Foundation apparently feels strongly that the press should be totally independent of government of any kind-but not of corporations.”

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Comments (10)

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Ken Leebow

October 13, 2010 at 11:07 am

Thanks for that information.
Unfortunately, I believe the docs have already been converted to big-pharma sales people. On a regular basis, I hear from the medical profession that genes ultimately dictate our cholesterol level. Thus statins are prescribed as a standard operating procedure.
Of course, genes do play a role. However, it is not known to what degree. Diet and lifestyle plays a huge role in this area.
While this is not a scientific study, in my own case, diet and lifestyle resulted in a 25% reduction in total cholesterol level.
I recommend to all, before getting on meds, please try lifestyle changes.
Ken Leebow


October 13, 2010 at 12:48 pm

There’s one way to combat this. Tell the journalists the profession of those speaking to them. Journalists lose cred big time if they break bread with PUBLIC RELATIONS FLACKS. Of course, as with Statins, there may be one or two who will benefit but the majority risking this association will have disabling and life-altering side effects followed by career death.

Bruce Wilson

October 13, 2010 at 4:32 pm

I checked out the AD agenda and everything looks fairly benign except the lunch session on the last day: New Horizons in Treatment. That’s where the journalists will be told all about Pfizer’s exciting new AD drugs in the pipeline.
Gary, you really must get someone to go to those meetings and discuss your tool kit. Or why not have someone hand out paper copies at the door? After all, they invited you; they shouldn’t object to your material being distributed.
Bruce Wilson
Montreal, Canada

Joseph P. Arpaia, MD

October 14, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Actually the medical metaphor is a parasitic disease not an infectious disease. A parasite does not kill the host quickly, and it evades the host’s defenses by pretending to be something benign.


October 18, 2010 at 11:36 am

Pharma is already doing an end run around journalist by sponsoring electronic health records and delivering ads right on the patients charts.. One of them PracticeFusion offers a free EHR and on their web site reminds providers that they will also get up to $43,000 from the government as well (CMS is reimbursing docs for the use of an EHR and not all of the cost is the software) recently announced that they are signing up hundreds of providers each day and now have over 43,000 (unclear if that is active users, staff, docs).
So each page of your EHR will now have an ad delivered alongside it – so you essentially have a drug rep in the exam room with you now.. They won’t even need articles or ads or stories in the press to get the message out..
Another company Phreesia gives providers a “free” check in tablet that delivers “educational materials” to patients right in the waiting room. It also calculates if a patient has meet their copay and deductible and forces them to pay on the spot (versus balance billing).