Doctors are less likely to trust research studies performed with funding from corporate interests such as pharmaceutical companies, according to a new study.
The report, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, reveals a long-suspected bias against such research among physicians. It also demonstrates the price companies have paid for public violations of trust, including examples of data manipulation and misrepresentation of study results.
In the study, researchers from Harvard Medical School asked physicians to read abstracts from studies reporting promising clinical data about a couple of different new drugs (the abstracts were fakes, written by the research team, but the doctors didn’t know that). The study abstracts varied in terms of how rigorous the research designs were, but they also varied in another way: Whether the funding for the studies was attributed to the National Institutes of Health, a drug company in which the author had a financial stake or no source at all. The doctors were then asked to describe how rigorous the study was, whether they trusted the results and if they would prescribe the drug the study described.
As expected, the doctors could, in general, correctly perceive how rigorous the studies were. But within each category, a doctor’s trust in the results was heavily influenced by the source of funding: They were only half as willing to prescribe drugs studied in industry-funded trials as compared with NIH-funded studies.
This is no small matter. Companies pour billions of dollars into clinical research every year. As the authors note in their report:
“Despite the occasional scientific and ethical lapses in trials funded by pharmaceutical companies, it is also true that the pharmaceutical industry has supported many major drug trials that have been of particular clinical importance. Excessive skepticism concerning trials supported by industry could hinder the appropriate translation of the results into practice.”
So while it may be reassuring to patients that their doctors are skeptical of the latest drug until they believe it is fully and independently proved safe, such an attitude may also hinder the progress of drug development.
The researchers suggest that companies in the field should work hard to bolster their credibility — though they do not provide advice as to just how to achieve that.
In an accompanying editorial, the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine writes that “decisions about how trials influence practice should be based on the quality of the information conveyed in the full study report.”
In other words, as the title of the editorial says, doctors should “believe the data.” But, if this study is correct, that may be easier said than done.
Return to the Booster Shots blog.