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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Ghostwriting Overpromoted HRT

This week PLoS Medicine published an unprecedented analysis of the Wyeth Ghostwriting Archive – a collection of documents uncovered during recent litigation brought against Wyeth (now owned by Pfizer) by thousands of women who developed breast cancer while taking hormones manufactured by the company. PLoS Medicine and The New York Times intervened in this litigation, which resulted in 1500 documents being unsealed and thus available for scrutiny by the public, journalists, and academics.

Dr Adriane Fugh-Berman of the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington DC examined the documents and found that Wyeth, aided by the services of a medical communication company called DesignWrite, produced ghostwritten reviews and commentaries that were then published in medical journals and journal supplements; used to promote unproven benefits and downplay harms of their menopausal hormone therapy and to cast competing therapies in a negative light.

The ghostwriting practices Dr Fugh-Berman documents in her PLoS Medicine article include Wyeth’s strategies to do with publication planning and recruiting academic “authors”, inserting marketing messages into journal articles including the promotion of off-label, unproved uses of HRT (such as prevention of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and visual impairment), overstating the benefits of the drugs, downplaying harms including the risk of breast cancer, which was beginning to be recognised, and defending a cardiovascular benefit despite no evidence.

The analysis received international press attention upon its publication last night.

We’ve also posted on the PLoS Medicine homepage a list of previous articles on ghostwriting that have appeared in the journal.

  1. First, congratulations on attracting international media attention on this week’s analysis publication. This story deserves wide media pickup, as we say in the PR field.

    It was your initial sleuthing along with the New York Times during early stages of Wyeth lawsuits that first got my attention (and my goat!).

    As a heart attack survivor who now must take a fistful of cardiac meds every morning, I was utterly gobsmacked by last year’s reports in PLoS Medicine. I realized that I have no clue which of my drugs was prescribed based on tainted research and flawed medical journal articles – and neither do my doctors!

    Thank you for helping the world to find out about this appallingly dangerous BIg Pharma marketing practice. PLoS Medicine was a prime motivator in my own work on ‘The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics For The Easily Swayed’, in which I too began to tell my readers about what I’d learned from you on medical ghostwriting.

    More at:

    Carolyn Thomas
    Victoria, BC Canada

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