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Sowing Front-Page Suspicions of Big Pharma

Is the drug industry the Times' next target? Front-page stories on consecutive days suggest so.

Is the drug industry in the Times' sights? Even a casual reader might think so, considering the paper's recent story placement strategy.



First, MRC's Tim Graham puzzled over the relative obscurity of Wednesday's lead story, "Doctors Reaping Millions For Use Of Anemia Drugs."



Then on Thursday, a banner front-page story repeated the theme of doctors being paid and possibly influenced in their choice of prescribed drugs by money from pharmacy companies in "Psychiatrists, Troubled Children and Drug Industry's Role," by Gardiner Harris, Benedict Carey and Janet Roberts.



And Thursday's paper lead with "Senate Approves Tighter Policing Of Drug Makers" from Robert Pear.



Thursday's psychiatrist story focused on Minnesota, since it's the only state that requires public reports of drug company marketing payments made to doctors. Itincluded a bar chart sidebar on the front page, under the biased banner "Prescription for Influence."



"Average number of prescriptions for atypical antipsychotics for children written by Minnesota psychiatrists who received the following amounts of money from the drug makers from 2000 to 2005."



Half of the front-page was given over to a photo of a Minnesota girl, Anya Bailey, who was given the antipsychotic drug Risperdal as treatment for an eating disorder. She gained weight, but as a side effect developed a painful nerve condition and now has to get injections to unclench her back muscles.


"Doctors, including Anya Bailey's, maintain that payments from drug companies do not influence what they prescribe for patients.


"But the intersection of money and medicine, and its effect on the well-being of patients, has become one of the most contentious issues in health care. Nowhere is that more true than in psychiatry, where increasing payments to doctors have coincided with the growing use in children of a relatively new class of drugs known as atypical antipsychotics.


"These best-selling drugs, including Risperdal, Seroquel, Zyprexa, Abilify and Geodon, are now being prescribed to more than half a million children in the United States to help parents deal with behavior problems despite profound risks and almost no approved uses for minors.


"A New York Times analysis of records in Minnesota, the only state that requires public reports of all drug company marketing payments to doctors, provides rare documentation of how financial relationships between doctors and drug makers correspond to the growing use of atypicals in children."


[...].


"In Minnesota, psychiatrists collected more money from drug makers from 2000 to 2005 than doctors in any other specialty. Total payments to individual psychiatrists ranged from $51 to more than $689,000, with a median of $1,750. Since the records are incomplete, these figures probably underestimate doctors' actual incomes.


"Such payments could encourage psychiatrists to use drugs in ways that endanger patients' physical health, said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, the provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. The growing use of atypicals in children is the most troubling example of this, Dr. Hyman said."


The Times later admitted: "No one has proved that psychiatrists prescribe atypicals to children because of drug company payments. Indeed, some who frequently prescribe the drugs to children earn no drug industry money. And nearly all psychiatrists who accept payments say they remain independent. Some say they prescribed and extolled the benefits of such drugs before ever receiving payments to speak to other doctors about them."


"Yet childhood bipolar disorder is an increasingly controversial diagnosis. Even doctors who believe it is common disagree about its telltale symptoms. Others suspect it is a fad. And the scientific evidence that atypicals improve these children's lives is scarce."


Would the liberal Times suggest that asthma caused by pollution or any other children's health problem might simply be a "fad"?


Without denying the pain of the side effect to Anya Bailey, if her severe back pain is the worst horror story the Times could find regarding side effects, then the experimental process must be going pretty well. And in the very last paragraph, the Times notes, in an irony the reporters probably missed, "An experimental drug, her mother said, has recently helped the pain in her back."


But what if that drug has a side effect too?


There's still much unknown about brain chemistry and antidepressants, and experimentation is necessary. But stories like these two front page stories on consecutive days sweep aside too many complexities in favor of aan agenda-driven tale that serves to foster suspicions of drug companies but won't help any child with mental illness.