Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough, the makers of Vytorin, spent millions over the past four years to educate doctors about the latest treatments for heart disease, according to The Wall Street Journal. Critics of the pharmaceutical industry assert that marketing, not medical education, is usually behind such generosity.
According to the Journal, Merck and Schering-Plough paid out a total of $60 million to a small group of medical schools and health groups, including Harvard University and the American Heart Association. The funds were used for Continuing Medical Education, or CME. Doctors are required to take CME courses in order to stay current with the latest advances in medical treatments.
Critics of industry funded-CME courses say that the practice could influence doctors prescribing habits, and have charged that the courses sometimes highlight the funding companies’ medications over competitors. But Merck, like many other drug makers, insists it has no input into the content of the courses it funds, The Wall Street Journal said.
The Merck and Schering-Plough CME funding was disclosed in a report released by the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “These documents remove any doubt that, at least in this case, when drug companies fund continuing medical education, they see it as money well spent on marketing their latest blockbuster drug,” said Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, chairman of the Special Committee. Kohl, along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R.-Iowa, has bee pushing for language in Senate health-care legislation to require companies to disclose such payments, the Journal said.
The CME courses Merck and Schering-Plough funded focused on treatment options for heart disease. According to the Journal, the company’s cholesterol drug, Vytorin, has been cited by some in Congress as an example of why there needs to be more transparency regarding the medical industry’s financial relationship with doctors, medical schools and medical groups.
Vytorin’s supposed benefits have been the subject of controversy since the ENHANCE study was released in January 2008. ENHANCE found that the drug was no better than a cheaper, generic statin in preventing clogged arteries, and raised serious questions about the effectiveness of Vytorin. What’s more, Merck and Schering-Plough delayed releasing ENHANCE for more than a year, even though the trial was actually completed in 2006.
The ENHANCE controversy spawned scores of lawsuits against Merck and Schering-Plough. Many accused the companies of marketing Vytorin and Zetia in a misleading fashion and failing to disclose the results of ENHANCE in a timely manner. We reported last month that Merck and Schering-Plough agreed to pay $41.5 million to settle class-action lawsuits stemming from that debacle. Several committees in Congress are investigating Vytorin marketing efforts.