drug commercials. In the UK you find television adverts only for over-the-counter medicines like athlete's foot cream or hayfever remedies, but here there are long informercials for everything from antidepressants to anti-cholesterol pills. This world of commercialised healthcare is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouth of someone raised through the NHS system like I've been, but I've learned that the ethical problems run even deeper. Last week, Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz from Dartmouth Medical School gave a seminar for us Knight Fellows at MIT about the myriad ways in which medical evidence is twisted by drug companies to make us believe that certain medicines are safer or more effective than they really are.
There are countless examples of pharma companies repackaging drugs for one disease to treat others (for instance, the antidepressant Abilify was originally an anti-psychotic), highlighting benefits while downplaying side-effects, and even creating disorders where none existed before (the classic example is restless legs syndrome, which didn't exist until a decade ago). To go some way to fixing this problem, Woloshin and Schwartz are lobbying for a 'Drug Fact Box' to be included with every medicine, which explains the benefits and problems in brief and clear language that patients can understand. It's already been proven to work, and supported by the Risk Communication Advisory Committee of the FDA. To read more about this brilliant idea, check out their op-ed in the New York Times from last year.
At the other end of the spectrum, former journalist Gary Schwitzer runs the website HealthNewsReview.org, which monitors bad health reporting in the media. In the last six years, he and his team have reviewed more than 1,800 stories. It's an incredible resource both for reporters and hypochondriacs, so please do check it out. I've already had my eyes opened by it.