A new review confirms that mainstream media often neglects to report when drug company funding is used for medication studies and that there is a propensity among medical and mainstream reporters to use brand, not generic drug names. These habits can bias public and medical opinion according to the review, which was published in the October 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Newspaper editors’ disagree.
“As a doctor, I am increasingly worried in recent years that company-funded research can’t be trusted in the same way that other research can be trusted,” said study author Dr. Michael Hochman, a resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “[Also], all of us, doctors, patients, journalists, have gotten into a bad habit of referring to medications by their proprietary brand names. At a philosophical level, I think we need to be referring to them by the generic name. We want to keep commercial interests as much out of the doctor-patient relationship as possible.” Andrew Holtz, past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists, former CNN medical correspondent, and now an independent journalist added, “Funding sources should be included in every story where it’s relevant.” Holtz noted that the study itself may be biased because it only included in its analysis stories of at least 200 words. “Two hundred words is not a very long story and I didn’t see in the study anything about whether there was a correlation between length of article and how thorough the article was in mentioning funding and generic and brand names,” Holtz said. Such stories may be omiting important information such as a drug’s side effects, he noted.
The study authors analyzed 306 news articles about medication research from U.S. newspaper and online sites and asked 100 editors at the most widely circulated newspapers nationwide about their reporting practices. The studies that were analyzed had been published in five prominent medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine. Forty-two percent of the news articles did not state when drug research received funding from the pharmaceutical industry; when a mention was made, it was typically buried in the text.
Sixty-seven percent of 277 articles that reported on medications only used the drug’s brand name in at least half of the medication’s references. The authors also state that up to $9 billion is spent annually in the United States when doctors prescribe brand name drugs, despite that a generic offers the same results. Also, 88 percent of responding newspaper editors believed articles they published often or always mentioned company funding, while 77 percent believed their stories referred to medications generically. Three percent had formal, written policies regarding disclosure of company funding; two percent had such policies on the use of generic drug names.
“News organizations, in my opinion, really should have explicit written policies that they enforce,” Hochman said. “We always need to disclose how a medical study is funded. I’m particularly concerned about commercial studies. We have many examples of how company-led research led us astray.” Hochman referred directly to the Vioxx (refecoxib) scandal in which the arthritis drug was withdrawn from the market in 2004 over concerns it increased heart risks.