Tag Archives: JAMA

Conflict of Interest at the CTT?

What is a conflict of interest? One definition is thus: ‘A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgement or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.’

Or, in my simple world. ‘Someone pays you money. You then say or do things that you would not have said or done, if they hadn’t.’ The secondary interest doesn’t have to be directly monetary. It could be a promise of a promotion, or an invitation to be chairman of an important committee, or a chance to meet someone famous, or watch a world cup final, or suchlike.

However, for the sake of keeping things simple, we are talking about money here. We are talking about pharmaceutical companies paying money to medical ‘experts’, who may then say or do things that they would not otherwise have said or done.

The first problem is, thus. How do you know they would not have said or done it anyway? If the dairy industry paid me a million pounds to say ‘Dairy foods do not cause heart disease.’ This would be a bonus. Because it is what I believe, it is what I say already, and you really don’t need to pay me a million pounds to say it. [Although I am open to offers].

However, if I was paid a million pounds and I then said ‘dairy foods to do not cause heart disease’, and you discovered that the dairy industry had paid me a million pounds, what would you think? I know exactly what you would think. ‘I trusted him, now it turns out he is just lining his wallet, the same as everyone else.’ Some would state this more vehemently than others. However, any reputation that I have would never be the same again. There would always be that loss of trust. That doubt.

The people we admire and trust the most do not take backhanders. Pity.

For many years, pharmaceutical companies paid doctors ‘honoraria’, which is just a posh word for money. The doctors happily stuffed said honoraria into their bank balances, and no-one seemed much bothered. You did not need to declare any financial interests, and the only limitation on how much you got paid was your perceived value to the companies.

Your value was measured in a few different ways:

1. Ability to influence other doctors – your status as an ‘opinion leader’
2. Your quality as a speaker at meetings and/or ability to set up and run clinical trials
3. Your influence within the healthcare system i.e. do you advise Governments on treatment, do you sit on committees that advice NICE, or the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA)
4. Your position on Guideline committees. Can you play a key role in writing the guidelines that other doctors have to follow e.g. drug x a must be used first line in all patients with condition y.

These things are, of course, all linked. As an expert you start on rung one and two, and then move onto three and four. Your progress up this ladder requires very close links with the industry. You cannot influence other doctors if you haven’t done research, and it is very difficult to do research without industry funding. If not impossible.

At a certain point in the process, you become exceedingly important to the industry. In fact there are companies who support the pharmaceutical industry whose entire raison d’etre is to manage Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).

According to Dan Mintze, senior director, heartbeat experts, “The management of KOLs needs to be broader than identifying, segmenting, influence mapping and working with clinicians in order for products to gain clinical approval. Rather a comprehensive KOL solution which includes the identification and appropriate engagement of KOLs who impact market access decisions e.g. KOLs who serve as Government or payer advisory board members (see figure 3) should be adopted.” Such pharma-KOL engagement will lead to the development of value messages that can help pharma to access the market faster, gain quicker product adoption, and increase bottom line performance.’ [my words in bold]  Original PDF here

The more you increase bottom line performance, the more you are worth, and the more you get paid. Strangely, some left-wing commies a.k.a ‘people’ began to object to this cosy relationship. A bit too much potential for the situation whereby… a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.

Luckily this problem was instantly solved, amid scenes of wild rejoicing, by ensuring that doctors who did major studies, or wrote articles and suchlike, must disclose their conflicts of interest. Once this had been done there was nothing to worry about, ever again. [joke]
Although, what we are supposed to do with a disclosure of interest has never really been explained. As a Swedish doctor wrote to me:

‘While we are at this: I have often wanted to ask the purpose of revealing possible/probable conflicts of interest. Just what are we supposed to do with that editorial caveat? Does it mean the data might be suspect? If the editors want us to know it is suspect then why do they publish it?

If it means we should interpret the data with caution, can someone tell me how one is to be cautious. Does it mean one believes none of it or does one believe some of it? If the latter then which part do we believe and/or which do we not believe. Just how are we supposed to judge these things, after having been warned to beware?

Indeed, what are we supposed to do? The other problem is that, whilst doctors are meant to declare their conflicts, quite often they do not. Here is an addendum taken from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It was in response to an article which was written by a number of authors, who did not see to need report any of their conflicts. Some eagle eyed readers wrote in to complain, and the journal responded thus [I put in bold those companies who would have benefitted financially from the original paper]:

Unreported Financial Disclosures in: ‘Association of LDL Cholesterol, Non–HDL Cholesterol, and Apolipoprotein B Levels With Risk of Cardiovascular Events Among Patients Treated With Statins: A Meta-analysis.’

….the following disclosures should have been reported: “Dr Mora reports receipt of travel accommodations/meeting expenses from Pfizer; Dr Durrington reports provision of consulting services to Hoffman-La Roche, delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for Pfizer, and receipt of royalties from Hodder Arnold Health Press; Dr Hitman reports receipt of lecture fees and travel expenses from Pfizer, provision of consulting services on advisory panels to GlaxoSmithKline, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Eli Lilly, and Novo Nordisk, receipt of a grant from Eli Lilly, and delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for GlaxoSmithKline, Takeda, and Merck Sharp & Dohme; Dr Welch reports receipt of a grant, consulting fees, travel support, payment for writing or manuscript review, and provision of writing assistance, medicines, equipment, or administrative support from Pfizer, and provision of consultancy services to Edwards, MAP, and NuPathe; Dr Demicco reports having stock/stock options with Pfizer; Dr Clearfield reports provision of consulting services on advisory committees to Merck Sharp & Dohme and AstraZeneca; Dr Tonkin reports provision of consulting services to Pfizer, delivering lectures or serving on the speakers bureau for Novartis and Roche, and having stock/stock options with CSL and Sonic Health Care; and Dr Ridker reports board membership with Merck Sharp & Dohme and receipt of a grant or pending grant to his institution from Amgen. (original JAMA correction here.)

As you can see, Paul Ridker had board membership with Merck Sharp and Dohme, and simply forgot the mention it. The authors’ collective punishment? Well, you have just seen it. Essentially, there is no punishment. A bit of momentary embarrassment, soon forgotten. [Although not by everybody, guys].

However, the steady pressure for doctors to provide disclosures of interest has had one major impact. It has made it a bloody site more difficult to know where the conflicts of interest might actually lie.

For it has been decreed….I don’t know who decreed, or agreed it, that if you are paid money directly by a pharmaceutical company, or say a PR company working for the industry, you have a financial conflict of interest that you must/should declare.

However, if you work for an organisation such as the Cleveland Clinic, or the Clinical Trials Research Unit (CTSU) in Oxford things are different. The clinic is paid money by the industry, and then the clinic pays you. This means that you are not conflicted in any way. You need not declare anything. Why?

I don’t know who stated that this is acceptable. As with most things in this area we are in a shadow world full of ghostly apparitions that elude your grasp. ‘They said it was fine.’ And who, exactly, are they. There is no oversight committee here, no investigations carried out, no rulebook, no punishment. Just a very woolly gentlemen’s agreement amongst the great and the good of medical research.

However, because it has been agreed, in some mysterious way, that ‘second hand’ payments are fine, it means that those working at the Cleveland Clinic, the CTSU, and suchlike, feel able to state that they have no financial conflicts – at all. Even if the organisation they work for earns hundreds of millions, or billions, in industry funding.

If those working at the CTSU do, somehow, find themselves working directly with the industry, they now give any money they might have eared to charity. To quote their rules on the matter:

Guidelines for CTSU staff with respect to honoraria and any
other payments offered and share ownership

——-

d: If an honorarium is declined, the intended CTSU recipient can still mention that a
corresponding amount might be donated to a specific charity.

A corresponding amount to a specific charity. What charity?

‘I guess if I had any advice for reporters, I would say, ask your local university if they’ve set up any associated [non-profit organizations]; many universities have an associated charity or foundation through which they solicit donations from corporate sponsors to support medical research. Find out about who those corporate sponsors are. Unfortunately, many universities set up these associated charities and foundations in such a way that they don’t have to disclose much publicly – ask about that, you know, try to push.’  (original article here)

Push away, but I don’t expect you will get very far.

Anyway, we are now supposed to believe that highly qualified and very influential KOLs, who work at the CTSU in Oxford, carry out work on behalf pharmaceutical companies for no payment, whatsoever. This is just charity work. Helping impoverished pharmaceutical companies is the same, really, as helping starving orphans in Africa.

Strangely, it appears that the CTSU doesn’t mind in the least that their staff are spending large chunks of their professional life helping pharmaceutical companies – out of the goodness of their hearts. The CTSU gets nothing; the pharmaceutical companies get nothing, other than a warm glow in their hearts. Meanwhile a ‘specific charity’ is doing rather well. Whatever that specific charity may be?

Of course the CTSU itself does rather well from the industry. Just for carrying out one of their many studies, REVERSE, they received £96million ($155million) from Merck Sharp and Dohme.

Yet, despite the huge sums of industry money sloshing about in the CTSU there are absolutely no conflicts of interest going on here. We are told this by none other than the CTSU itself. No-one is paid money directly by the industry in any way. So that is fine.
As Robbie Burns said: ‘O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us. It wad frae monie a blunder free us.’

As a sort of footnote to this blog, you may be interested to know that the Cholesterol Treatment Triallists Collaboration (CTT) in Oxford is probably the most influential organisation in directing the management of CV disease around the world.
The ACC/AHA guidelines launched last year in the US are based on the latest CTT meta-analysis; as are the latest NICE guidelines in the UK. The Cochrane Collaboration, which is also highly influential world-wide, changed their guidance on the use of statins in primary prevention, based on the CTT meta-analysis.

In short, if you want to identify a group of KOLs who can truly increase ‘bottom line performance’, you will not find any organisation more powerful than this. Best of all, CTT have absolutely no conflicts of interest with the pharmaceutical industry either. If you want to contact the CTT about any of this, you can e-mail them at: CTT@ctsu.ox.ac.uk

A ghost in the machine

I suppose most people missed this story about life expectancy in the UK. If you didn’t pick it up, this article comes from the Doctors net website. A site for doctors registered to practice medicine in the UK.

Life expectancy fall alarm 14/02/2014

The life expectancy of England’s elderly population has fallen for the first time, it was reported last night. Women at the age of 75 can expect to live a little less longer than they would have at the beginning of the decade, according to new figures.

The figures for 2012 are still provisional and represent a reduction of two and half months in life expectancy for women at the age of 75.There was no change in life expectancy for men, who could expect to live 11.3 years.

The Department of Health calculations, obtained by the Health Service Journal, show that life expectancy for women at that age fell from 13.2 years to 13 years. The figures may reflect the growing problems of caring for an elderly population – or simply growing numbers of elderly people.

John Newton, of Public Health England, told the journal: “Life expectancy reflects what has happened in people’s lives, and these people were born in wartime, when there were profound changes in diet. We have seen an unprecedented increase in life expectancy and it’s possible that is coming to an end.

“But we do also expect fluctuation. As we have an older population, the proportion of deaths that will fluctuate due to flu and cold weather is greater.

So it seems that life expectancy in the UK is falling amongst elderly women, and it is staying stationary for elderly men. Which is rather the opposite of what was supposed to happen, and reverses many years of increasing life expectancy.

Why is this happening? Ten years ago the UK Government embarked upon the most expensive, and extensive, initiative ever undertaken in preventative medicine. The Quality Outcome Framework (QoF). This was launched with a great fanfare.

QoF is a system whereby GPs have to screen the entire population for conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, high cholesterol, etc. etc.

Once any early stage diseases had been picked up, treatment is instigated. Then there is regular monitoring to ensure that targets for blood pressure lowering, blood sugar control, and suchlike were met. This system has cost billions upon billions of pounds.

It was supposed to stop people dying prematurely from diseases, or conditions that could be properly ‘treated’ and ‘controlled.’ Because the elderly are, by the nature of being elderly, far more likely to have various early stage diseases, and are therefore at highest risk, this is the population that has been most tightly monitored and ‘treated’.

I work, part-time, in Intermediate Care. A unit where elderly people who have had an accident, broken a hip, or suffered other acute illnesses are cared for. Our job is to get them as fit as possible to return home. There are nurses, physiotherapists, occupations therapists, and me, sorting out underlying medical conditions such as anaemia. Some patients arrive from the community, others from hospital.

I did a small audit last year, and found that the average number of drugs that our patients are taking when they arrive in the unit is ten point three. That is, ten point three different drugs. Some of which are taken three or four times a day. So, a total of twenty or thirty tablets a day, in many cases.

This is the very definition of polypharmacy. And how much harm could polypharmacy do? Well here is a study from Israel, looking a study where people in nursing homes had drugs discontinued [They stopped as many drugs as was considered ethical]. Here is the abstract of the paper.

The war against polypharmacy: a new cost-effective geriatric-palliative approach for improving drug therapy in disabled elderly people.

Background:

The extent of medical and financial problems of polypharmacy in the elderly is disturbing, particularly in nursing homes and nursing departments.

Objectives:

To improve drug therapy and minimize drug intake in nursing departments.

Methods:

We introduced a geriatric-palliative approach and methodology to combat the problem of polypharmacy. The study group comprised 119 disabled patients in six geriatric nursing departments; the control group included 71 patients of comparable age, gender and co-morbidities in the same wards. After 12 months, we assessed whether any change in medications affected the death rate, referrals to acute care facility, and costs.

Results:

A total of 332 different drugs were discontinued in 119 patients (average of 2.8 drugs per patient) and was not associated with significant adverse effects. The overall rate of drug discontinuation failure was 18% of all patients and 10% of all drugs. The 1 year mortality rate was 45% in the control group but only 21% in the study group (P < 0.001, chi-square test). The patients’ annual referral rate to acute care facilities was 30% in the control group but only 11.8% in the study group (P < 0.002). The intervention was associated with a substantial decrease in the cost of drugs.

Conclusions:

Application of the geriatric-palliative methodology in the disabled elderly enables simultaneous discontinuation of several medications and yields a number of benefits: reduction in mortality rates and referrals to acute care facilities, lower costs, and improved quality of living.

The first thing to say here is that, if there ever was a ‘war’ against polypharmacy, then polypharmacy won a long time ago…at least in the UK.

For those who find scientific papers somewhat opaque, the key point from this paper is the following

The one year mortality in those who did not have their medications reduced was 45%

The one year mortality in those who did have their medications reduced was 21%

This is a fifty three per cent absolute reduction in overall mortality risk in a year. Which is a better figure than I have seen for any drug intervention, ever, anywhere. So it would seem that the best possible drug treatment discovered…. is to stop taking drugs. As an added bonus you save lots of money, and make the patient feel much better, all at the same time.

Just one paper? No, of course not. There are a number of different studies demonstrating that discontinuing medication in the elderly is a good thing to do. A review paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) came to the following conclusions:

‘The finding that simultaneous discontinuation of many drugs is not associated with significant risks and apparently improves quality of life should encourage physicians to consider testing this in larger RCTs (randomised controlled studies) across a variety of medical cultural settings. Polypharmacy may have different faces in different countries or clinics but there is no doubt that the problem is global. This approach has international relevance; it combines our best existing evidence with patient-focused care while actively avoiding extrapolation from inappropriate populations where no evidence exists for treatment in elderly patients.’

In fact, I cannot find any evidence that polypharmacy, however you define it, does anything but harm. In the face of such evidence what did the UK authorities decide to do? Why, they set about create a system designed to drive the biggest explosion of polypharmacy ever seen. What else would you expect them to do?

So why has the mortality gone up in the elderly population in the UK? Well, I know where I would put my money. On the very system designed to stop them dying in the first place.