NY Times Takes on Pharma

The New York Times has recently had two fascinating and, I think, accurate articles highlighting the relationship between doctors, health care, and pharmaceutical companies, in anemia treatment, and in antipsychotic use in children.

I posted once about problems with the use of antipsychotics, but this is a whole different issue. This is a major problem. It looks like doctor's groups in NY that were prescribing variants of EPO, which boosts red cell production and is thought to be useful in conditions like chronic kidney disease and chemotherapy, were receiving rebates from the pharmaceutical companies based on how much they gave patients to the tune of millions. Millions. Sounds a bit fishy. Getting rebates based on the drugs you give people.

Then, there's a second article about psychiatrists receiving payment from drug companies in Minnesota, which publishes such statistics unlike most states. It said the most money received by a doctor was over $600,000 in a year.

Now, I'm usually one to point out that doctors don't make as much money as CEOs, or business folks, or lawyers; in a recent book, Better, Atul Gawande pointed out that the return per year of schooling for doctors was on the order of 16%, as compared to almost 30% for business school. Still, we're not about to end up in the poor house as a profession. We should know better.

There's good evidence that these trips and gifts and, well, cold cash in bank accounts, influence prescribing practices. It seems obvious with enormous rebates, but it's true even of the pens and note pads. Ask your doctor about it. Go ahead. And check out a site that some doctors have started in protest, called No Free Lunch. It has just started a directory of providers who have pledged not to accept gifts from pharmaceutical companies.

Yes, we need drugs. Sure. But we don't need to be paid by the companies that make them. Sheesh. And we all supposedly took ethics in med school. I suppose it's easier for me; drug reps aren't allowed to visit UW physicians. I've never seen one.


Merlin Deficiency

Neurofibromatosis has two types; medical students are taught to think of it whenever they see cafe au lait spots, literally 'coffee with milk' according to those crazy French people who, as Steve Martin says, 'have a different word for everything'.

A couple interesting things. We associate these with all sorts of syndromes in children, but it turns out that something like 1% of caucasians and up to 27% of african-americans have 1 to 2 spots (as found and presented well by a classmate). Like unequal pupils, most of the time this doesn't mean disease.

Still, neurofibromatosis sydnromes are associated; these people deal with a variety of tumor types that grow out of Schwann cells, normally responsible for covering peripheral nerves in myelin, a sort of insulation that speeds transmission and makes life possible. Depending on the type these can be on the skin or, commonly, in the eye or ear.

But the real reason to post is that the alternative name for the gene in type 2 is 'merlin'. As in, the wizard. So, it's correct to say that the little girl receiving chemo down the hall right now for a resistant optic glioma has a shortage of magic in her life; specifically, a shortage of tall, long-bearded wizardry.