Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Hospitality and Pharma: Relationship on the Rocks?

Decades of mutually beneficial economic ties have bound the fortunes of hotels, restaurants, and drug companies. But in an era of Sunshine Act disclosure, renewed calls for professional ethics, and ballooning healthcare costs, that relationship may be souring.

It used to be a veritable love-fest. As recently as 2011, I was writing about a restaurant's attempt to rebrand itself as a "pharmaceutical dinner facility."  In 2010, I debated a restaurant chain owner who was calling for the Massachusetts legislature to repeal the state's 2009 gift ban so drug companies could once again wine and dine doctors at his restaurants. His lobbying turned out to be successful. The state's previously strict law was revised in 2012. Now it allows industry representatives to purchase meals of a "modest value" outside the office or hospital as long as they provide educational information about their products between courses.

However, it turns out that while hospitality industry owners are working double time to book reservations for doctors and pharmaceutical reps, their employees have an entirely different idea. They--correctly--see drug company relationships with doctors as a driving force in their rising health care costs, and they want pharmaceutical companies to stop funding educational CME programs at their hotels.

Last week I wrote about this brave stance from the hospitality worker's union Unite Here ("Hotel Workers Against Industry-Funded CME?"). The Wall Street Journal​'s Pharmalot blog got in touch with me to discuss the matter further and yesterday they posted a follow up that includes more of my thoughts on the matter and more of ACCME's self-serving response.

Looking back over the recent history of these industry dynamics, it's easy to see more workers taking this stand against business as usual. After all, they go to work every day in the middle of a money storm while simultaneously seeing their health costs rise year after year. That's a pretty good reason for them to want to stand up.

You can help them out by signing the No More Drug Money petition they are promoting and by sharing it around.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Hotel Workers Against Industry-Funded CME?

In a fascinating new chapter in the battle over industry funding of CME, a huge hotel workers' union has started a campaign to end the practice. Unite Here represents 270,000 workers, and the organization claims that industry funding of CME drives up their health care costs, which is undoubtedly true. So they have created a website, No More Drug Money, to advocate their cause, and they are inviting us all to sign the Pledge: "Add your name here to encourage the ACCME to kick drug money out of CME for good."

You have to respect an organization willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Hotel workers are, after all, an integral part of the grand machinery transporting industry marketing messages into the hearts and minds of doctors. They're quite aware of this:

"We work in hotels, airports, and convention centers, and we do the hard work that make many CME meetings run. We cook the food, we change the sheets, we do the laundry, and we pass out the agendas. We see first-hand what kind of presence pharmaceutical companies have during these meetings. And we are ready for a better system."

For ACCME's formulaic response, click here.

Industry funding of medical education, whether accredited CME or promotional talks, has always created strange bedfellows, but now it has created particularly strange antagonists.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The GeneSight Test: A Wing, a Prayer and 13 Patients

We just published the May issue of The Carlat Psychiatry Report, and the topic is "Biomarkers in Psychiatry."

I contributed an article reviewing the evidence for the GeneSight genetic test, which is being quite heavily marketed as a way to choose the right medications for patients. According to company's website:

"Multiple clinical studies have shown that when clinicians used GeneSight to help guide treatment decisions, patients were twice as likely to respond to the selected medication."



That's misleading, I found. The vast majority of the GeneSight data are based on studies with an unreliable methodology. These were so-called "open label" studies in which patients were non-randomly assigned to two groups: guided treatment vs. unguided treatment. All patients and clinicians knew which patients were assigned to which group, leading to the very real possibility of various biases--along with a heavy helping of the placebo effect.

One single randomized, blinded study has been published (not even properly blinded, since the clinicians knew which patients were in which group). It enrolled 49 patients (25 in the guided group, 24 in the unguided group). There was no significant difference in the depression improvement scores between the groups. There was a secondary analysis of 13 patients showing a potential benefit for those whose meds were categorized by the test as being particularly problematic.

13 patients? I don't think I would use a genetic test based on good results from an N of 13--and I would suggest that you think twice before you do so!

By the way, I'm at the APA meeting in Toronto and will be going to a lecture today sponsored by Assurex, the maker of GeneSight--if I learn anything new I'll let you know.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

How Drugs Collide: What Every Psychiatric Prescriber Should Know

Please file this blog post under "Shameless Self-Promotion."

I just published a new edition of my book, Drug Metabolism in Psychiatry: A Clinical Guide. You can buy it here, and you can read a free preview of the first two chapters here.

It's mostly a book for psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners. It's pretty short at 145 pages, but it's very concise and in my opinion fun to read.

If you are not a prescriber you might also find it useful because it explains in clear language how we make decisions about which drugs to prescribe based on how they are metabolized. Therapists, patients, and those simply interested in psychiatry might find it educational, and strangely entertaining.

Anyway, that's it. Sorry if you were looking for a piece of muckraking investigative journalism. Maybe next time!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How a New Blood Test for Depression is like Apple Recognition

Four years ago I wrote a blog post about the MDDScore blood test for depression. That was before there were any peer-reviewed publications describing it. Now there are at least two. The latest came out a couple of months ago in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, and you can access the article, along with two interesting commentaries, for free.

While I won't go into the article in any detail, suffice it to say that the overall accuracy of the test for diagnosing depression was between 91% to 94%, depending on the group studied. Based on this, the authors report that the test "has excellent performance in confirming a diagnosis of MDD (major depressive disorder)."

The article is a classic example of the pitfalls of focusing on glitzy-sounding statistics while downplaying the actual clinical usefulness, which in this case is close to nil, as both of the Journal's commentators agreed.

I recently discussed the same problem in an article I wrote for CCPR about the NEBA EEG test for ADHD. Like the MDDScore, the NEBA test promises to aid in the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness. The NEBA's accuracy is high, with a positive predictive value for ADHD of 96% for kids, and 81% for adolescents. But no matter how accurate it is, the crucial question is whether it adds value above and beyond the standard psychiatric interview. Neither the MDDScore nor the NEBA do.

In my article, I used a hypothetical analogy of a new test to diagnose apples:

"Let’s imagine that there’s a new apple-recognizing device on the market called the “Apple Rec,” which uses various technologies to measure the wavelength of light reflected by an object, its mathematical curvature, etc. The manufacturer provides impressive data showing that the Apple Rec has 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity for diagnosing (recognizing) an object as being an apple. Given these dazzling statistics, would you buy the Apple Rec? No, because even though it’s exquisitely accurate, it provides you with no useful diagnostic information beyond what you can obtain by looking at the apple yourself. However, if the Apple Rec provided you with added value, you might consider it a good investment. For example, if, in addition to correctly recognizing it as an apple, it also calculated its sweetness and crispness, the Apple Rec suddenly becomes a useful tool, because these are qualities that you would otherwise struggle to ascertain."

The apple principal applies to diagnostic tests in psychiatry. Before you refer your patients to an expensive test that diagnoses ADHD, depression, or anything else, you need to make sure that it does something that you can’t easily do yourself.  


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Medscape Presents: The Brintellix Show

As I wrote in part one of my Medscape review, the website gets high marks for up-to-the-minute coverage of psychiatric news, and it deserves kudos for posting a ton of textbook-like content on disorders and drugs. I wasn’t so thrilled with its "un-privacy" policy, which results in your personal info and browsing history being sold to third parties. 


Today we get into the dark side of Medscape Psychiatry, which is their industry-funded CME. 

Medscape Psychiatry CME Overview

Medscape offers four different categories of CME on its “CME and Education” page.  "Clinical Briefs" and "Journal Articles" are mostly not industry funded, whereas "Patient Cases" and "Knowledge and Practice" are generally industry products.  

Brintellix (vortioxetine) Background

To give you a little context, Brintellix is the latest antidepressant to be FDA approved. It is being marketed as a "multimodal" antidepressant because it has effects on several different receptor sites. The company has produced some interesting data showing that Brintellix may cause fewer sexual side effects than other antidepressants, and that it may help improve the slowed-down thinking that is common with depression. But it is not FDA approved for either of these potential advantages, because thus far, the data are far from definitive.

Medscape and Takeda/Lundbeck

Medscape is the largest single recipient of pharmaceutical CME grants among all U.S. medical communications companies. According to an article in JAMA, it received $20,315,730 in 2010, the last year for which such data were aggregated. I don't know how much the company is receiving from Takeda/Lundbeck for producing CME programs, but it's probably a lot. If you click through Medscape's most technologically sophisticated online courses, a high proportion are funded by this duo.

Here are some of the titles of the courses:

Commercial Bias in One of the Courses

All of the courses listed above are likely biased in favor of Brintellix--there wouldn't be much point in paying Medscape to produce them otherwise. Since blogging is not my day job, I chose only one of them to watch: The Pharmacology of MDD Treatment: Building a Foundation With a Focus on 5-HT.

This course begins with four multiple choice questions, which are supposed to test your knowledge before you learn. Here's one of them:

Which of the following antidepressants manipulates the most serotonin receptors at once?
vilazodone
selegiline
quetiapine
vortioxetine
The correct answer? Vortioxetine. 

This is a clever way to prime the pump, to get the audience thinking about the promoted drug.

Next, we get a slide purporting to give an overview of the history of antidepressant drug development.


The big red bubble labeled MMD refers to "multimodal drug", ie., vortioxetine. That's the latest one. The implication is that it's the most technically advanced. 

Later in the program, there are a few slides highlighting "new antidepressants." Only one antidepressant gets prominently featured on two slides:


The more crucial question is not "how many ways can one drug manipulate 5-HT" (even the manufacturer states the "clinical relevance" of the drug's many serotonin actions is "unknown") but rather "how many ways can one communication company manipulate doctors's prescribing practices?"

To make their point crystal clear, one of the experts in the video glowingly endorses Brintellix, saying that its multimodal mechanism is like packing a bunch of great medicines into one:

"Vortioxetine is a great example of this multimodal thing we were talking about. It is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, but it also is a very strong agonist at 5-HT1A, which we said you want to have an agonist there. It also is a powerful antagonist at 5-HT3 which and a powerful antagonist at 5-HT7. On paper, here is a drug that has some of these qualities we have been talking about that could make it possibly a multimodal agent almost like a built in augmentation strategy in 1 pill, which certainly would be, just practically, a little easier for patients than having to take more than 1 medicine, which we often have to do.[3-6]"

A bit later, he goes even further, implying that Brintellix uniquely targets three common symptoms of depression:

"Again, right now, the data clearly show the 3 most common residual symptoms, even with people who have a response to an antidepressant are insomnia, cognitive impairment, and fatigue. I think those are things that are not well addressed by an SSRI alone. Thinking more sophisticated, multimodal actions whether it is 1 pill that has that built in augmentation. I think that is where the field is going."
Summing up Medscape
Since the last time I reviewed a psychiatric website, I assigned a letter grade, I'll give Medscape one as well: a B-. 
Why? It gets an A for delivering bite-sized psychiatric news clips on its non-CME page, an A- for providing free but dry drug and disorders info, and an F for failing to comply with Standard 5 of ACCME's Standards for Commercial Support in its CME courses. Among other things, Standard 5 forbids a CME program from promoting a "specific proprietatry business interest of a commercial interest", and it requires that presentations "must give a balanced view of therapeutic options." 
I'm surprised that Medscape is still resorting to these shenanigans, but I guess that's what butters their bread. 




Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Medscape Psychiatry Review, Part One: The Good...

Medscape is the number one website for American physicians--a 2010 survey found that 57% of doctors read the site. I'll wager that proportion is higher in 2015.

I have not always been Medscape's number one fan. I've called the site out for pushing Cymbalta in a Lilly-funded "Pain TV" program and for touting Invega in a CME-accredited infomercial that was so blatant that Business Week ran a story about it.

But I have found that the site has improved over the past few years. For example, gone are the notorious sponsored resource centers, in which a single company would underwrite all coverage of a disorder (eg., Shire bought the ADHD section, and GlaxoSmithKline bought bipolar disorder.) There are plenty of ads, but Medscape appears to have understood the separation between church and state, and has stopped merging ads with articles...at least in their main pages.

So if you are a psychiatrist browsing for some reliable, free information, can you rely on Medscape? I'll give a qualified "yes."

Where Medscape really excels is in bringing up-to-date news written in an unbiased journalistic style.


For example, above is the psychiatry homepage from April 7, 2015. Yes, there is a big positive feature on a heavily promoted antipsychotic agent, Latuda. But there’s also an article praising lithium as an effective and underused generic drug. And there's a piece about how antidepressants can cause seizures even at normal doses. So at least on the homepage, Medscape is no longer the shill for drug companies that it once was.

If you drill into specific topics, you’ll also find that Medscape becomes a gigantic encyclopedia of medical knowledge. It covers all specialties, and in the psychiatry section alone there are over 100 articles. The articles have multiple sections and are comprehensive. They remind me of the truck-sized psychiatry textbooks that most of us felt we needed to buy earlier in our careers but which we have rarely cracked open. Like those textbook chapters, Medscape’s educational articles are quite dry – even, at times excruciatingly boring. But, nonetheless, the information is out there for you to read and it is scot-free.


Unfortunately, there are still a few dark sides to Medscape. A 2013 article in JAMA authored by Sheila Rothman and colleagues alerted all physicians to the fact that Medscape, along with other similar medical communication companies, is in the business of sharing all of your personal data with drug and device companies. You can read Medscape’s privacy policy here. It's a long document but I will give them credit for using pretty plain language as they disclose the myriad ways in which they are sharing your information. One of the creepiest technologies is called a "web beacon." This is a hidden drone of the Internet that tracks every click you make, every page you seek, and every breath you take. Your mental processes are then sold to "third parties". It's absolutely creepy.

Some will object that this is business as usual on the web. Google does it, which is why I see ads popping up in my gmail for an obscure car rack that I searched for last month. Tracking my car rack searching behavior is one thing--tracking how I'm thinking about saving patients' lives...well, I think there's a qualitative difference. 


In part two of my Medscape post I will cover their continued addiction with industry funded CME. I guess that pays their bills. But the crassness of these infomercials is pretty astonishing, particularly in the era of the Physician Payment Sunshine Act. To be continued…