“Ghostwriting” has been the bane of good medicine for decades now. Pharmaceutical companies routinely “draft” scientific studies, medical journal articles, and opinion pieces and then pay doctors, scientists, and legislators to sign off on them.
There’s of course no way to know the full extent of medical ghostwriting, but several studies have estimated that no less than 10% of medical studies are ghostwritten and that it’s quite possible half of all medical studies were actually ghostwritten by companies that had a financial interest in the subject matter, like drug companies trying to sell medications or medical device companies trying to sell implants or surgical tools. For one medical ghostwriter, the final straw was when she was asked to draft a misleading article about ADHD, a condition that two of her children had been diagnosed with. She abandoned the field, leak some of the information to the New York Times, and then published an article about it under her own name.
All of which brings us to STAT, which runs the STATnews site. As someone heavily involved in medical malpractice and pharmaceutical negligence litigation, I don’t agree with everything that they write, but I respect and admire the site, because of their ethical standards and their willingness to dive deep into the subject matter instead of just serving as a public relations tool for healthcare companies. Yet, even they were bamboozled by a medical ghostwriter:
STAT has retracted the article “How pharma sales reps help me be a more up-to-date doctor,” by Dr. Robert Yapundich. It did not meet our standards.
As a matter of policy, we ask all our contributors to disclose payments from industry and other possible conflicts of interest. In this case, the author disclosed no conflicts other than his affiliation with an organization that supports expanding manufacturers’ ability to discuss off-label uses of drugs.
It turned how that the author “had received more than $300,000 in recent years from pharmaceutical companies, including one he mentioned in the article,” and that an anecdote in the article was not accurate. And, as HealthNewsReview found, he “didn’t actually write the piece.”
But I don’t want to pile criticism on STATnews. Quite the contrary. In response, they took down the editorial and revised their guidelines for op-ed submissions, including amending their author agreement “to be more aggressive about ferreting out such deception” and they “ask writers to disclose any help they received as we evaluate the merits of their submission.”
The real question isn’t “what’s wrong with STATnews?” The real question is, “why doesn’t every scientific and medical journal have the same policy?”