Is psychiatry more corrupt than other medical specialties?

At a talk I gave Wednesday at George Washington University, someone in the audience asked why there seemed to be an inordinate number of psychiatrists on the take to the drug industry. Was it something about the specialty of psychiatry itself or the individuals involved? I have often pondered the same, especially since this is not simply an anecdotal observation. In 2007, The New York Times examined the payments made to all doctors in Minnesota in the years since that state passed one of the first laws in the nation requiring the public disclosure of payments from the pharmaceutical industry. Based on that investigation, Times reporters concluded that as a specialty, psychiatry topped the list in lucrative drug company payments.

So what’s going on? A couple of things, I think. First off, there’s a reason why drugs like Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac and Lexapro are top sellers: it’s easier to expand the criteria for who might benefit from these drugs. After all, almost everyone has experienced depressive or anxious symptoms at one time or the other, so if the makers of these drugs can reach psychiatrists and persuade them to prescribe pills for such universal symptoms, we’re talking real profits here. And what better way to influence psychiatrists’ prescribing behavior than to put their most prominent colleagues — the key opinion leaders (KOLs) — on your payroll?

Secondly, as someone who came to the talk astutely noted, psychiatrists have been squeezed by managed care into the role of pill prescribers. Unlike other medical specialties, doctors in psychiatry don’t get adequately reimbursed for treating the whole patient — by doing psychotherapy, for instance — so all they can do these days is prescribe drugs. In a sense, psychiatrists are gatekeepers for the pharmaceutical industry, much like surgeons (who put in stents and other devices) are gatekeepers for the medical device industry.

Because of these trends, partnering with the drug industry has become a pervasive part of the psychiatric culture in recent years. It has become, for example, common practice for drug companies to bankroll symposia at the specialty’s top medical conferences, at which psychiatrists on their payroll extoll the benefits of their products (without disclosing their conflicts of interest). As I reported in a previous blog, Nada Stotland, the current president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), initially took umbrage when Sen. Charles Grassley questioned the organization’s incestuous ties with the drug industry. In a memo to APA members, Stotland wrote: “Long traditions and established practices are not only being questioned, but also criticized across the board.” As I said then, it almost sounded like Stotland’s problem was with the criticism of these longstanding practices, not the practices themselves.

And that is why I was gratified to see in the Carlat Psychiatry blog, that the APA has officially decided to phase out all industry-funded symposia that take place at their annual meetings.

That’s a good first step to reform. But there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by the news reported today in The New York Times that court documents appear to indicate that Dr. Joseph Biederman promised a drug company (Johnson & Johnson) positive results about its drug Risperdal from studies that had not been undertaken. Biederman, as has already been reported, not only earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 (the bulk of which he failed to report), but also received funding from J&J for a research center at Massachusetts General Hospital, which he headed.

Like Martin Keller, the psychiatrist I expose in my book, Biederman is one more example of how science can be skewed and public interest harmed when doctors are the beneficiaries of industry largesse. Psychiatry may be particularly vulnerable to such corporate blandishments, but I would argue that it’s time for all medical specialties to take a good look at the way they do business and start healing.

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