Two hundred Harvard Medical School students are confronting the school’s administration, demanding an end to pharmaceutical industry influence in the classroom. The students worry that pharmaceutical industry scandals in recent years, including criminal convictions, billions of dollars in fines, proof of bias in research and publishing and false marketing claims, have cast a bad light on the medical profession. The students have criticized Harvard as being less vigilant than other leading medical schools in monitoring potential financial conflicts by faculty members. Harvard received the lowest possible grade, an “F,” from the American Medical Student Association, a national group that rates how well medical schools monitor and control drug industry money. The students were joined by Dr. Marcia Angell, a faculty member and former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, who has vigorously advocated for an end to liaisons between academia and Big Pharma.
Medical schools’ image as unbiased sources of education is increasingly being tarnished as the truth comes out about their heavy ties to the drug industry. Even Harvard Medical School, one of the most prestigious in the United States, recently earned an F for its policies regarding accepting money and gifts from drug companies. The grade came from the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), which ranked 150 medical schools according to their ties to industry. The more money and other incentives a school was receiving from the pharmaceutical industry, the worse grade they got. Harvard earned the lowest grade possible, so kudos to these medical students who decided to confront the school’s administration for some much-needed change. According to AMSA:
The issue has only gotten more heated since the New York Times ran this article, featuring the story of Matt Zerden, then a first-year Harvard medical student, who became suspicious after one of his professors promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs, and even went so far as to belittle a student who asked about side effects. Turns out the professor was not only a member of Harvard’s medical faculty, but also was a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments. “I felt really violated,” Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, said in the New York Times. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.” And that really sums up the issue in a nutshell. How can medical professors teach unbiased, truthful information to their students when they’re being essentially paid off by drug companies? Well, they really can’t, and that’s the problem. Impressionable medical students are being indoctrinated into the drug-based model of disease care as we speak. It goes on all the time, and I can vouch for this personally as I, too, was brainwashed in medical school to favor the drug paradigm. In the mid ’80s, I was actually a paid speaker for the drug companies. They would fly me to various physician education events around the country and pay me a very generous stipend to lecture to these groups. That was more than two decades ago, before I was able to remove myself from their very powerful brainwashing techniques — and I was finally able to understand the truth of what they were doing.
In the 19th century, most Americans thrived on more natural approaches like homeopathic medicine. Then, in 1847, along came the American Medical Association (AMA). Most people didn’t trust this new conglomeration, so to gain the power, money and control they were after, they kept all homeopathic physicians out of their “club,” and proceeded to call all related remedies “quackery.” If you didn’t want to pay to join the club (by advertising in their medical journal, JAMA), anything you recommended would also be criticized. From that point on, the AMA turned into a medical monopoly, taking control of medical schools and essentially medical students as well. To put it simply, when the AMA took control of the medical schools, they made it so that only those who graduated from one of them could practice medicine. And since they controlled the schools, guess what was largely taught? How to use prescription drugs. This intertwining of the drug industry and medical schools is still going strong today, with the end result being a medical model that relies heavily on drugs, surgery and hospital stays, instead of teaching true healing practices.
It’s old news that drug companies use aggressive sales tactics to influence doctors’ prescribing habits, but what may surprise you is how well these tactics work. A study a few years back found that drug companies were the greatest influence on doctors’ decisions of which drugs to prescribe. Further, about 70 percent of doctors regarded drug representatives as an efficient way to obtain new drug information! Of course, they start their pitches even before the doctors are practicing, while they’re still in medical school. Drug reps must target doctors, and doctors in training, because a physician is required for the consumer to purchase their product. Although in the United States they have also ramped up their direct-to-consumer ads on television and in magazines, their real “meat and potatoes” comes from their marketing directly to physicians. This is one of the primary reasons why drug companies spend $4 billion each year on direct-to-consumer ads in the United States, but 400% more, a massive $16 billion, to influence your doctor. That is $10,000 for every single doctor in the United States.
Fortunately there is a generation of bright medical students entering the field, and many of them are taking steps to help clean up their medical education. Already, AMSA has succeeded in securing a requirement at Harvard that all professors and lecturers disclose their industry ties in class (one professor’s disclosure list had 47 company affiliations!). Amidst all of the bad press, Harvard’s dean also announced that a 19-member committee will be re-examining the school’s conflict-of-interest policies. The inundation of drug companies into the medical field as a whole did not happen overnight, and it won’t get solved that way either. But step by step, changes are being made in the right direction. If you are a student in medical school right now, or planning to enter soon, please become familiar with AMSA’s PharmFree campaign. Aside from being a great source of information, their site offers guides and kits to help you make positive changes, including major policy reforms, at your own school.