Recently, I listened to an illuminating podcast in which board-certified cardiologist Bret Scher and nephrologist (kidney specialist) Jason Fung discussed the very real and very detrimental ties that exist among top pharmaceutical companies (commonly known as “Big Pharma”), medical doctors, and researchers. (Click here to listen to the podcast yourself. The entire episode is interesting, but their discussion of the unethical connections begins at minute 49:43.)
You may have heard Dr. Jason Fung’s name connected to the ever-growing research on intermittent fasting and type 2 diabetes; currently, he is recognized as “The King of Fasting.” Aside from this important research, Dr. Fung has also positioned himself as a whistleblower in the medical community because he shamelessly speaks out against Big Pharma’s connections to doctors and research. I strongly recommend that you read this article of his (or this one!) before you willingly accept any prescription from your doctor or buy in to published medical research findings.
If you’d prefer to read my bullet-pointed takeaways, here they are:
- While laws and codes of ethics exist for restricting gifts to almost everybody–policemen, journalists, and judges–doctors may legally accept hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical companies.
- As long as doctors disclose any conflict of interest, these payments are perfectly acceptable.
- Research has proven that gifts from pharmaceuticals influence doctors’ prescribing behaviors, but doctors deny that their behavior is influenced.
- Big Pharma literally pays doctors off, but it is never explicitly called a “pay off.” Instead, conflicts of interest are disguised as “research grants,” “education grants,” “consulting fees,” “speaker fees,” and “free meals.”
- This is essentially how it works for physicians: Big Pharma pays physicians thousands of dollars, physicians prescribe tons of drugs, Big Pharma makes more money, Big Pharma pays physicians even more money. The same pay offs exist for medical researchers. Sometimes their research is paid for by Big Pharma, other times it is paid for by food conglomerates, and frequently the funding is a mix of both. For example, Coca-Cola has funded research that argues sugar is a health food; further, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo sponsor 95 national health organizations.
- Doctors are not at fault; Dr. Fung used to accept money from Big Pharma before he realized the implications these payments had on his practice. Bottom line: The rules need to change.
Knowing all of this, what can we do?
- Before accepting any prescription drug from your doctor, inquire about his or her ties to Big Pharma.
- Also, engage your physician in a discussion about alternatives to pharmaceuticals, like diet modification. If you’re diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or heart disease, for example, overwhelming research suggests that dietary changes may improve–or even cure!– your ailment even better than any prescription could. If your doctor is unwilling or unable to discuss possibilities outside of prescription drugs, find a new doctor.
- When reading any new “health improvement” headline, maintain skepticism. Consider this headline from a Nutrition and Diabetes journal released July 4, 2016: “Pasta is not fattening, quite the opposite.” Before you sprint to bring a pot of pasta to a boil, notice the funder of the research: Barilla. Yep, that’s right! One of the top pasta companies in the world funded research proving that pasta is healthy. Imagine that!
- Ultimately, consider yourself the CEO of your health; don’t let any one doctor or research finding sway you.
As always, I welcome your comments! Do you have an idea for a future post? Feel free to share!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!
4 thoughts on “Doctors + Medical Researchers + Big Pharma: Facts to Consider Before Taking Prescription Drugs and Trusting Research Findings”
Great conversation starter! As somebody who comes from a family of doctors (immediate, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.), this is an oft-discussed topic in my (extended) household. This is great to get the conversation going. And, of course, I wouldn’t say this is a blanket overall picture of all MDs, because it definitely is not, but it’s a reality that needs to be seriously considered. I think your point about being your own CEO is such a great one (in health and everything else) (and because we cannot, as you said above, just malign doctors automatically – that is wholly incorrect). Big pharma “donations” and “gifts” unfortunately force some doctors to prescribe expensive brands, rather than the lower-cost generic brands that are more affordable for the average american. So who’s the biggest loser, US? Patients. And what happens? We don’t get the preventive care we need, so we end up having more heart attacks, aneurisms, strokes, escalated blood pressure, what have you, that possibly *POSSIBLY* could have been prevented had we been able to afford to go to the doctor.
There’s also the issue that insurance companies, in addition to big pharma, have now created a new wave of doctors and have come to dictate (i’d say in the past 20 years) how doctors operate. The doctors of yore (private practices, which have become or are now becoming dinosaurs in that industry) were able to be more thoughtful, considerate, and spend more time with their patients. But this the new wave of doctors, meaning, big corporate-owned medical groups, controlled by insurance companies, has meant the elimination of many patient-centered physicians who are now being harassed by insurance companies because they don’t fit into the standard of care: ie the six-minute office visit and routine diagnostics. Rather than rewarding doctors for keeping their patients out of the hospital by implementing personalized lifestyle medicine (aka PREVENTIVE care), they are penalized (financially and otherwise) for not following the new, formulaic road map of care. Medicine should not be about efficiency, it should be about providing top of the line care rooted in accepted medical practices, as well as considerations about new and emerging sciences. To be clear, this, too, is a big picture perspective – not ALL doctors are like this (my father is still one of the most-respected doctors that i know – not tooting my own horn because i am nothing like him! :)), but it’s a sad reality that I, myself, have experienced – as most of us have – which has forced me to basically shop around for doctors. This all reminds me of the time, in 2015 when I was charged $750 (!!!!) for an annual physical exam because it was routine aka preventive aka I did not come to the doctor’s office with an actual “problem.” (again, I go back to my argument about the real importance of preventive care), which led me to squawk on the phone for hours and hours with my insurance company about wouldn’t they rather pay for my $750 annual physical, rather than the $20,000 hospital bill I will have if i DON’T see my doctor every year aka notice that i have high blood pressure aka then subsequently have a heart attack that could have *POSSIBLY* been prevented had i been able to afford going to the doctor’s office and noticed my arteries were clogged. Whew! I’m out of breath here. Look at the conversation this blog entry got going! Good stuff!
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Excellent points! Agreed on all fronts.
1) We definitely cannot put the blame on ALL doctors because many are so good. Just like in all professions, there are some bad apples. Still, when it comes to matters of your own health, being your “CEO” means taking an honest look at your current providers to be sure they’re top notch. I was unhappy with my primary care physician because he was dismissive. I’m an overall healthy individual, but I’m always working to OPTIMIZE my health. When it came to matters like routine, preventative blood work, he didn’t want to do the tests or discuss the results. Now, I’ve found the most AMAZING woman who met with me for 45+ min. my first appointment. And, we chatted at her DESK, not on an uncomfortable paper-covered exam table. It took me awhile to find a doctor like her that is covered by my insurance, but I finally did!
2) The Big Pharma-induced pressures doctors face must be so incredibly frustrating to them. The vast majority of doctors entered into the profession to HELP people, but now they barely have time to accomplish that singular (and so necessary!) goal. I know a lot of doctors are starting their own grassroots efforts to reform healthcare; Chris Kresser is one of them: https://chriskresser.com/ I love reading his articles and listening to his podcast. You should check him out!
Thanks, again, for the thoughtful, discussion-inducing comment!
Thanks for the great post (always love the links to cited info) and thought-provoking comments
@ Roxana: Your checkup story reminds me of a friend that had high blood pressure and was faced with paying out-of-pocket for a nutritionist or getting heavily subsidized pills to lower his blood pressure. The preventive approach of using a nutritionist is penalized because the long-term health of the pharmaceutical industry is threatened if we decide to stop managing health issues with medical interventionism and attack root causes.
@ Brooke: Do you think wearable tech will influence the way we deal with doctors/insurance? For instance, will I get discounted checkups/medication if I can demonstrate regular preventative practices such as walking regularly or eating well? Individuals practicing preventative approaches should be rewarded because they could reduce societal costs to paying for diabetics or emergency health services for heart attacks.
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Thanks for the insightful reflections and questions, Kivan!
I think wearable tech will DEFINITELY influence doctor/insurance practices in the future. I agree with you–it will be great if we can finally be rewarded for practicing preventative measures. Also, this will hopefully shift the focus from treatment to prevention; in my opinion, this shift can’t come soon enough!
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