(Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)
Mainstream medicine increasingly relies on Guidelines. Well, they are called guidelines, but increasingly they carry the force of law. In many countries if you try to practice outside the wise and infallible guidelines you may lose your license to practice medicine. In the US, you may well be dragged into court, and if you have not been following the guidelines, you will be sued. You can even be gaoled (or jailed, as we say in the UK).
In short, guidelines are very serious and important things indeed, and they now rule medicine with a rod of steel. In the UK up to 50% of general practice time is spend ensuring that all patients are constantly monitored to ensure that various guidelines are rigorously followed. Is the BP low enough, the cholesterol low enough, have you checked blood sugar levels etc.
But where do guidelines come from – exactly? Who gives people the right to sit on guideline committees? What are the entrance requirements? Who shall guard the guideliners?
The answer is, perhaps shockingly, that there are almost no rules to this. If a group, such as the National Institutes for Health in the US, decides to set up a committee to decide on, for example, what is the healthy level for cholesterol lowering, what happens? They ask a number of Key Opinion Leaders to join the committee. In this case the NCEP (National Cholesterol Education Programme – which is a committee, not a programme).
In 2004 this committee decided that cholesterol levels should be lowered far more aggressively than in the past. Based on, as far as I could see, very flimsy evidence. Could it be that that committee was, in some way, biased in favour of cholesterol lowering companies? A number of people, including me, demanded to see if any of the eight invited members of this hugely important committee had financial conflicts.
With much reluctance, the conflicts were revealed (I have highlighted, in bold, the companies who marketed cholesterol lowering agents at the time.) See below
ATP III Update 2004: Financial Disclosure of NCEP members
Dr. Cleeman: (Chairman) has no financial relationships to disclose.
Dr. Grundy: has received honoraria from Merck, Pfizer, Sankyo, Bayer, Merck/Schering-Plough, Kos, Abbott, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and AstraZeneca; he has received research grants from Merck, Abbott, and Glaxo Smith Kline.
Dr. Bairey Merz: has received lecture honoraria from Pfizer, Merck, and Kos; she has served as a consultant for Pfizer, Bayer, and EHC (Merck); she has received unrestricted institutional grants for Continuing Medical Education from Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Novartis, Wyeth, AstraZeneca, and Bristol-Myers Squibb Medical Imaging; she has received a research grant from Merck; she has stock in Boston Scientific, IVAX, Eli Lilly, Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, SCIPIE Insurance, ATS Medical, and Biosite.
Dr. Brewer: has received honoraria from AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Lipid Sciences, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Fournier, Tularik, Esperion, and Novartis; he has served as a consultant for AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Lipid Sciences, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Fournier, Tularik, Sankyo, and Novartis.
Dr. Clark: has received honoraria for educational presentations from Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and Pfizer; he has received grant/research support from Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, and Pfizer.
Dr. Hunninghake: has received honoraria for consulting and speakers bureau from AstraZeneca, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, and Pfizer, and for consulting from Kos; he has received research grants from AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Kos, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Novartis, and Pfizer.
Dr. Pasternak: has served as a speaker for Pfizer, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Takeda, Kos, BMS-Sanofi, and Novartis; he has served as a consultant for Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Sanofi, Pfizer Health Solutions, Johnson & Johnson-Merck, and AstraZeneca.
Dr. Smith: has received institutional research support from Merck; he has stock in Medtronic and Johnson & Johnson.
Dr. Stone: has received honoraria for educational lectures from Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Kos, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Novartis, Pfizer, Reliant, and Sankyo; he has served as a consultant for Abbott, Merck, Merck/Schering-Plough, Pfizer, and Reliant.
Of course, as people have stated to me, the mere fact that there were seventy two financial conflicts of interest does not mean that the guidelines themselves were biased. But you know what, I don’t believe it. Imagine if eight Supreme Court judges, ruling on any issue, had seventy two direct financial conflicts of interest to do with that issue…..Well, the outcry would never end.
Yet doctors, it seems, are beyond any suspicion – of any sort. There is not the slightest possibility that any doctor would ever do anything wrong….We are, after all, superior beings. ‘But, what’s that you say skippy…. hold on.’
‘Despite a 2-year-old scandal discrediting key evidence, current guidelines relying on this evidence have not been revised. As a result of physicians following these guidelines, some researchers say, it is possible that thousands of patients may have died each year in the UK alone. It is unlikely that a true understanding of the damage will ever be known…..
The guidelines, which were published in 2009, were based on analyses of the available trials. The strongest evidence came from the DECREASE family of trials, which appeared to strongly support perioperative beta-blockade, and one other large trial, POISE, which raised concerns that beta-blockers might lead to an increase in deaths
In 2011, however, faith in the reliability of the DECREASE trials was shattered as a result of a scientific misconduct scandal centering on the principal investigator of the studies, the now disgraced Dutch researcher Don Poldermans. The issue was further complicated because, in addition to his key role in the trials, Poldermans was the chairman of the committee that drafted the guidelines.’ http://cardiobrief.org/2013/07/31/european-heart-guidelines-based-on-disgraced-research-may-have-caused-thousands-of-deaths/
Oh well, maybe not.
The fact is that, wherever you look, guidelines are being developed by doctors who have widespread conflicts of interest. And if you go a step further back to review the studies that the guidelines are based on, they are run by, and written up by, doctors who have enormous conflicts of interest. Although sometimes, these conflicts are just…well, forgotten about.
For example, a few opinion leader were ‘named and shamed’ by the Journal of the American Medical Association, when someone pointed out that a number of the authors of the original paper they wrote might just have slipped up in declaring their conflicts:
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. http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/307/16/1694.3.full?etoc
Not a bad little list. As you can see, Dr Ridker had board membership with Merck Sharp and Dohme…… a company that has made billions from selling statins. Now, here is he is authoring a paper on the benefit of statins (which will be used to develop guidelines on cholesterol lowering), and he simply forgot about this conflict of interest. As for the others, well, they’re also busy people; things must have just slipped their minds, such as thirty three separate financial conflicts.
For this terrible crime against the integrity of medical science, none of them can ever again do medical research, or author a medical paper, or sit on guideline committees. Cue, mad cackling laughter. As you may expect, absolutely nothing happened at all, apart from the publication of that statement you in the Journal in the American Medical Journal (JAMA).
I am sorry, but the system of developing guidelines is, frankly, bust. It has been for many years, but it is a very big and dangerous looking nettle to grasp, and no-one, currently has the will to do it.
Someone, somewhere, needs to ensure that guidelines, and the evidence they are based on, and the interpretation of that evidence, is of the highest quality – and free from potential bias, and financial conflicts of interest. We are about as far from this happy state of affairs as I am from being invited onto any guideline committee, ever, anywhere.
And that, my friend, is a very, very long way away indeed. You would need to Hubble telescope to see across distances as vast as that.