Media ignores pharma funding behind medical research

According to a study published in the latest issue of the [italics] Journal of the American Medical Association [end italics], many newspaper and online stories on medication studies neglect to indicate when pharmaceutical companies paid for the research.

The study, conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers at Cambridge Health Alliance, found that 42 percent of news articles on medication studies did not disclose the funding sources. Only three percent of the publications and online outlets surveyed even had written policies governing disclosure.

The study authors reviewed more than 300 online and newspaper articles on company-funded medication studies published in medical journals between March 2004 and April 2008, and also surveyed health editors at the most widely circulated U.S. newspapers to assess their views and practices regarding the reporting of medical research.

"We in the medical community realize that research funded by pharmaceutical companies can't always be trusted," said lead author Michael Hochman, MD, a resident physician at CHA and a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. "The fact that news articles often do not indicate when studies have received company funding means that readers may not have the information they need to evaluate the trustworthiness of new research findings."

The study revealed that two-thirds of the news articles referred to medications by the pharmaceutical company brand names rather than the generic names. Just 2 percent of the newspaper editors surveyed reported that their publications had written policies stating that articles must refer to medications by generic names.

Study co-author David Bor, MD, CHA's chief of medicine and Charles S. Davidson associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School said the use of brand names may confuse patients and could promote the unnecessary prescription of expensive brand medications when equally effective generics could suffice.

"The unfortunate reality is that all of us - patients, doctors, and the news media - have learned to refer to medications by their brand names," Bor said. "We need to make a concerted effort to use generic names to reduce confusion and limit potential health care cost increases."

Senior author Danny McCormick, MD, a primary care physician at CHA and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said he hopes the study's findings will inspire news organizations to make changes in the way they cover company-funded medical research.

"Since most people, including many healthcare professionals, get medical information from the lay press, we want journalists to implement and enforce strict policies ensuring that they cite funding sources for medical research and identify medications by their non-proprietary generic names," McCormick said. "We should expect that the news media provide information that is accurate, fair, and comprehensive, and thus serve as a watchdog for the public good."

Cambridge Health Alliance includes three hospital campuses, more than 20 primary care and specialty practices, the Cambridge Public Health Dept., and the Network Health plan. The health system is a Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate.