The peril of mass marketing prescription drugs to the public was evident again this weekend when the New England Journal of Medicine reported (3/30/08) that two frequently-prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs, Vytorin and Zetia, may not work and should be used only as a last resort.
There's a lesson here every physician and every patient should pay attention to.
Vytorin and Zetia's use has soared in the United States amid their ubiquitous, $200 million TV and print marketing blitz. (Vytorin ad on Youtube). In Canada, where advertising drugs to consumers is not allowed, sales are four times lower. The medications are major profit makers for their manufacturers, Merck and Schering-Plough - worldwide sales totaled $5 billion last year.
Doctors at a major cardiology conference in Chicago were just shown for the first time the full results of a two-year clinical trial that demonstrated that the drugs failed to slow, and might have even sped up, the growth of fatty plaques in the arteries. Growth of those plaques is closely correlated with heart attacks and strokes.
Congress and state officials in New York have been investigating why these results were hidden for nearly two years after the study ended. Appallingly, despite these findings, Merck and Schering-Plough said they would continue to promote these medications as first-line treatments for high cholesterol.
Dr. John Kastelein, the Dutch scientist who led the study, said the results show the drug had "no result -- zilch. In no subgroup, in no segment, was there any added benefit in terms of reducing plaque."
It's time for responsible members of the medical community to stand up to this marketing madness. The public unknowingly is exposed to compelling advertising for powerful prescription drugs be it on TV or in magazines without the benefit of honest medical information or guidance from a caring and well informed physician. This situation only benefits the bottom line of the pharmaceutical manufacturer of the drugs and jeopardizes the health and wellbeing of the patient as well as bringing into question the role of the doctor-patient relationship.
Doctors need access to information about these drugs in a timely manner. The fact that the results in this case were kept secret by the drug companies for two years is a disgrace and unfortunately not a unique occurrence in our present drug company run health care system.
Doctors need to remember the oath they took to protect their patients and serve them and patients need to take a similar oath of not allowing themselves to become victims of ruthless marketing and intimidation by parties interested solely in financial gain.