Monday, September 13, 2010

Bought And Paid For_the Selling of the Academic Community

The Secret Lives of Big Pharma's 'Thought Leaders
September 12, 2010
By Carl Elliott

'In the early 1970s, a group of medical researchers decided to study an unusual question. How would a medical audience respond to a lecture that was completely devoid of content, yet delivered with authority by a convincing phony? To find out, the authors hired a distinguished-looking actor and gave him the name Dr. Myron L. Fox. They fabricated an impressive CV for Dr. Fox and billed him as an expert in mathematics and human behavior. Finally, they provided him with a fake lecture composed largely of impressive-sounding gibberish, and had him deliver the lecture wearing a white coat to three medical audiences under the title "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education." At the end of the lecture, the audience members filled out a questionnaire.

The responses were overwhelmingly positive. The audience members described Dr. Fox as "extremely articulate" and "captivating." One said he delivered "a very dramatic presentation." After one lecture, 90 percent of the audience members said they had found the lecture by Dr. Fox "stimulating." Over all, almost every member of every audience loved Dr. Fox's lecture, despite the fact that, as the authors write, it was delivered by an actor "programmed to teach charismatically and nonsubstantively on a topic about which he knew nothing."

It is tempting to imagine that the Dr. Fox study reveals a deep flaw in the structure of medicine—for example, that health-care workers are too trusting of authority, or that Continuing Medical Education (CME) lectures are a sham. But what the study actually reveals may be something closer to the opposite. If medicine were simple and transparent, pretending to be a medical expert would be very difficult. An audience could spot incompetence right away. Pretending to be a medical expert is possible precisely because medical knowledge is so specialized and opaque. These days an ordinary doctor can no more expect to understand the intricacies of specialized medical research than the driveway mechanic who tinkered with his Volkswagen in 1962 can expect to fully understand the complex, computerized automobiles on the road today. Those who have tried to sit through a medical lecture in a field other than their own will secretly admit that they could have been fooled by Dr. Fox as well.

Since the 1950s, marketers have been taken with the idea that when it comes to spreading the word about unfamiliar products or ideas, some people are far more important than others. The phrase "opinion leader" was made familiar by the sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz in their 1955 book, Personal Influence, where they used the term to explain the way that media messages were filtered and spread by personal, face-to-face contact with influential people. It is not hard to see why marketers liked this idea. Mass-media advertising can be expensive. What if there were a way to avoid the masses and simply concentrate on the special people? Today the pharmaceutical industry uses the terms "thought leader" or "key opinion leader"—KOL for short—to refer to influential physicians, often academic researchers, who are especially effective at transmitting messages to their peers. Pharmaceutical companies hire KOL's to consult for them, to give lectures, to conduct clinical trials, and occasionally to make presentations on their behalf at regulatory meetings or hearings.

The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school. KOL's do not exactly endorse drugs, at least not in ways that are too obvious, but their opinions can be used to market them—sometimes by word of mouth, but more often by quasi-academic activities, such as grand-rounds lectures, sponsored symposia, or articles in medical journals (which may be ghostwritten by hired medical writers). While pharmaceutical companies seek out high-status KOL's with impressive academic appointments, status is only one determinant of a KOL's influence. Just as important is the fact that a KOL is, at least in theory, independent. Medical audiences trusted Dr. Fox partly because he played the part of an expert so convincingly: white coat, gray hair, and a complicated lecture, delivered with authority. But they also trusted him because they had no reason not to trust him. Dr. Fox was not selling a product or pitching an idea. The very implausibility of his charade is part of what made it so persuasive. Dr. Fox appeared to be impartial.

It is not hard to see why pharmaceutical companies would like to have a Dr. Fox speaking on their behalf. Most marketers would like to have a convincing, influential, and apparently independent expert who will deliver the text that they give him. The more interesting question is: Why do so many academic physicians want to be Dr. Fox?

"It strokes your narcissism," says Erick Turner, a psychiatrist at the Oregon Health and Science University. There is the money, of course, which is no small matter. Some high-level KOL's make more money consulting for the pharmaceutical industry than they get from their academic institutions. But the real appeal of being a KOL is that of being acknowledged as important. That feeling of importance comes not so much from the pharmaceutical companies themselves, but from associating with other academic luminaries that the companies have recruited. Academic physicians talk about the experience of being a KOL the way others might talk about being admitted to a selective fraternity or an exclusive New York dance club. No longer are you standing outside the rope trying to catch the doorman's eye, waiting hungrily to be admitted. You are one of the chosen. "You get to hobnob with these mega-thought leaders and these aspiring thought leaders," Turner says. "They make you feel like you're special."

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