Ghosts | Not Just for Halloween

I stumbled across some articles related to pharmaceutical companies and the public relations tactics commonly used. I learned about medical ghostwriting which was fascinating as it relates to public relations, media and ethics.

Because drug companies’ success is at the mercy of the doctors who prescribe their medications, a great deal of effort is put into influencing those doctors via earned media channels. Doctors turn to medical journals, which are supposed to be independent “evidence-based” literature (Ross, 2011). As it turns out, some medical journals are not quite so independent. Spinak (2014) writes,

“One of the hidden secrets of the medical literature is that the named authors on a paper’s byline, particularly in the case of clinical trials, are not necessarily the individuals who wrote the paper. It is not uncommon for pharmaceutical companies, or medical product manufacturers, to write their own papers and then find university professors to agree to be the named authors of the paper.”

In addition, medical publication planning agencies have developed to combine “scientific information about a drug that help[s] create a ‘drug narrative’” (Ross, 2011). Essentially, the planners write or find someone to write scientific content supporting the sponsored drug and sell that to medical journals for publication. Doctors reading these medical journals are not made aware that the articles’ authors have been paid to write in support of the drug. Ross (2011) offers Current Medical Directions, a medial communications company based in New York, as evidence of a planning agency that does this kind of work. Their website reads, “CMD is a leader in the field, creating scientific content in support of our clients’ messages and disseminating these messages to the appropriate target audience through innovative media incorporating the latest platform and dissemination techniques” (“Welcome to CMD”, n.d.). Planners use various tactics to get articles published that are favorable to their pharmaceutical company clients. The most popular way is to solicit a ghostwriter. Spinak (2014) writes,

“The use of the ghostwriter in medical journals causes ethical and legal problems. This concern is due to the fact that pharmaceutical companies and the industries which produce medical technology may frequently distort the results produced by clinical trials. They may also not be impartial. These articles prepared by medical writers hired by the industries are then given to certain “invited authors” who put their name to them in return for payment. The articles are then usually sent to commercial journals with a high impact factor, and for this reason it is more attractive to invited researchers to put their name to them because of the boost that these articles will give to their own careers.”

Spinak continues that a “New York Times study in 2010 found a level of ghostwriting in the world’s principal medical journals between 4.6% and 10.9% of articles published.” I am certainly familiar with the adage, “Don’t believe everything you hear”, but when a trusted doctor is prescribing a medication that he/she feels is beneficial for me or a loved one, I tend to believe! I find publication of this type of content to be troubling, a dark side of public relations.

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Welcome to CMD. (n.d.) Current | Medical | Directions. Retrieved June 30, 2015 from http://www.cmdny.com

Lacasse, J and Leo, J. (2013, January 23). Introducing a three-part series on medical journal ghostwriting. Health News Review. Retrieved from http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2013/01/introducing-a-three-part-series-on-medical-journal-article-ghostwriting/

Spinak, E. (2014, January 16). Ethical editing- Ghostwriting is an unhealthy practice. [Web log]. Retrieved from http://blog.scielo.org/en/2014/01/16/ethical-editing-ghostwriting-is-an-unhealthy-practice/

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