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Beryl Lieff Benderly

The best expertise money — and flattery — can buy

How do pharmaceutical companies get reputable academic medical researchers from fine universities to flog their products to the nation’s doctors?  By providing the hired brains something they value even more than the high fees the companies pay for “consulting:” A feeling of importance that comes from associating with elite colleagues.  

And how do the companies get the physicians who hear the paid experts’ talks to accept their recommendations?  By manipulating the symbols of academic expertise and authority as well as the doctors’ unease at the fact that specialized medical knowledge is now too copious and complex for practitioners outside a given subfield to readily understand.
And why do universities permit faculty members to accept positions “consulting” with pharma firms that use them as glorified salesmen — known in the trade as “key opinion leaders”? Because top officials at elite universities are also earning handsome fees and elaborate flattery from pharma companies, often on corporate boards.
These are only some of the amazing and disturbing revelations in a fascinating, eye-opening and exceedingly important essay by University of Minnesota bioethicist Carl Elliott in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education.  Elliott also describes an astounding 1970s study in which researchers outfitted a distinguished-looked gray-haired actor with a white coat, a prestigious fake title, an impressive fictional CV, and a lecture on a supposedly arcane medical subject that actually consisted of total gibberish.  An audience of doctors bought the invented “Dr. Myron Fox” and his presentation as the real thing, and even praised it as “stimulating” and “accurate.”
When it comes to manipulating the image of authority, academics’ vanity and venality, and doctors’ inability to keep up in detail with more than a small fraction of the medical literature, the pharma firms are still, as it were, crazy like Dr. Fox.  Read Elliott’s essay and weep.  Or better yet, read it and demand that universities do something to stop the outrages it describes.