FOX 5 Investigates: Selling Diseases - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

FOX 5 Investigates: Selling Diseases

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The next time you reach in the medicine cabinet, take a hard look at the pills you’re about to swallow.

A growing number of doctors say some are for diseases created to sell the drugs you take.

A quick search on the Internet and you will see the commercials.

"Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now."

"Over 10 million Americans suffer. Do you?"

Warning you about symptoms for diseases you may never have heard of before.

"May be a symptom of a more serious condition called GERD."

They make you wonder. Do you have it? Do you need to treat it?

“It’s not very difficult to make people feel like they’re not normal,” says Georgetown University’s Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman. "They might say, ‘Do you urinate more than five times a day?’ And the viewer is thinking, ‘Gee, doesn't everyone? I'm not really keeping track of how many times my office mates are going to the bathroom.’ Maybe I'm not normal.”

Dr. Fugh-Berman is creating a buzz in the medical world because she says pharmaceutical companies are marketing drugs before they have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

She says they don’t advertise the drug. Instead, they sell the disease.

"What industry does is invent conditions, invent diseases in order to expand the market for a drug,” she says.

Dr. Fugh-Berman uses this fictitious example:

Let’s give the gurgles and rumbles that come with an empty stomach a new medical name.

We’ll call it Gurglerumblitis.

A drug company discovers a drug that prevents Gurglerumblitis.

Since it is illegal to promote a drug before it has been approved, Dr. Fugh-Berman says the company will spend the next decade paying doctors to go to medical conferences to warn other doctors about a new disease called “Chronic Loud Atypical Stomach Sounds” or CLASS.

"By the time the drug comes out, both prescribers and patients are relieved that finally here's this answer to this problem I have been hearing about for years," Dr. Fugh-Berman says.

Diseases she says you should be wary of include:

- Overactive Bladder Syndrome
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Osteopenia
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD
- Pediatric Bipolar Syndrome

"Pediatric Bipolar Disorder is the Terrible Twos,” says Dr. Fugh-Berman. “You know how two year-olds are happy one minute and then crying the next? There were physicians at Harvard and other places who were hired by drug companies to go out and convince physicians this was a real disorder. This wasn't just a normal developmental phase, but this was a disease. And we started, as a profession, giving babies cocktails of potent anti-psychotics and some kids died."

"It’s brainwashing. [It] is what it amounts to,” says Dr. Sidney Wolfe with the non-profit watchdog Public Citizen.

Dr. Wolfe published “Worst Pills, Best Pills,” an online encyclopedia of drugs and important information every patient should know before taking those drugs.

Dr. Wolfe says when whistleblowers or company insiders come forward, the FDA can crack down on illegal marketing techniques.

The FDA fined Pfizer a record $2.3 billion in 2009.

But Dr. Wolfe says even that much money wasn’t enough because the government alleged it takes just three weeks for Pfizer to make that same amount in sales.

"Until people go to jail and until the criminal penalties are really in the realm of what the company made in terms of profits, it’s going to keep going on," Dr. Wolfe says.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America or PhRMA declined FOX 5’s request for an on-camera interview, but in a statement says:

"It is irresponsible to suggest that certain conditions are fabricated or exaggerated … patients who live with these conditions do not 'decide' to take medicines to treat the conditions. Rather, they rely on physicians, who make the prescribing decisions that they feel are best for each individual patient."

But Dr. Fugh-Berman says that is the whole problem.

She says as many as 80 percent of doctors accept payments, free travel or other freebies from drug companies.

"We were interested in seeing how much money doctors were receiving from the pharmaceutical industry for speaking on their behalf, for consulting on their behalf," says Charles Omstein with the journalism non-profit ProPublica.

Omstein helped create a database that lets you type in the names of your doctors to see if they have accepted money from drug companies.

He says there are tens of thousands of doctors in the database ranging from big university names to small rural physicians.

"If you see your doctor’s name in the database, it doesn't mean that your doctor has done anything wrong,” says Omstein. “But what it does mean is you have the right to ask your doctor questions. What do they do for that money? Are they more likely to prescribe a drug that has more side effects or is more expensive instead of a generic?"

Omstein warns some drug companies haven’t released names to the public, so the list isn’t complete.

So Dr. Fugh-Berman says you should also look for these warning signs at your next doctor’s visit:

- Promotional items with drug company names on them
- Free drug samples
- Salespeople pulling/carrying suitcases into the doctor’s office

Dr. Fugh-Berman says every patient should ask their doctor hard questions about the drugs they are prescribing because only you pay the ultimate price.

"The physician isn't the one taking the risk of that drug and the physician isn't the one who’s paying for it,” she says. “You the patient are paying for that drug and taking the risk of that drug."

Online:

PhRMA Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals:
www.phrma.org/sites/default/files/108/phrma_marketing_code_2008.pdf

PhRMA Principles on Physician Involvement in Clinical Trials:
http://www.phrma.org/sites/default/files/105/042009_clinical_trial_principles_final.pdf

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