Attention Grabbers May Oversell

Jul 01, 2002

Scientific peer-review, the last bastion of unregulated medical communications, gets a thorough inspection in the June 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). From editorial bias to press releases, virtually every aspect of the medical research publication process is scrutinized, analyzed, and summarized by presentations at the Fourth International Congress on Peer Review in Biomedical Publications and published in the issue.

Of particular note to pharma marketers are the articles from "Communicating to Readers," a section that addresses the role of "throw-away journals" in physicians' continuing education, the accuracy of medical journal press releases, and most important, the relevance of scientific meeting media coverage.

In their article on that subject, subtitled "Too Much, Too Soon?" Lisa Schwartz, MD, and Steven Woloshin, MD, of the Center for the Evaluative Clinical Sciences at Dartmouth Medical School, conclude that research abstracts at scientific meetings that get high-profile media attention don't deserve it because many of them are based on animal studies or are poorly designed. The authors emphasize that 25 percent of publicized research findings remain unpublished in peer-reviewed journals more than three years after the meeting, and that those receiving front-page coverage are no more likely to be published than those getting less visibility.

Although the authors admit that they don't know the extent to which the public or physicians are influenced by news coverage of medical research, they caution that meeting organizers should establish more rigorous standards for issuing press releases. That advice might come in handy for pharma companies seeking to publicize preliminary data that may not be ready or appropriate for public consumption.

Recent press releases from VelaPharm, a privately held company specializing in medicines for the central nervous system, sought to publicize preclinical animal model data from studies on tofio-spam, an anti-anxiety treatment, and isomeric amphetaminils, stimulants similar to amphetamines.

Kevin Keim, PhD, the company's president, is quoted in one release saying, "For a growing number of physicians, amphetamine products are a therapeutic staple for the treatment of ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], and we feel our isomeric amphetaminils will develop to be quite competitive in this market."

But so far, rats are the only subjects used for the research that VelaPharm presented to the National Institute of Mental Health's New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit conference, a closed-door, invitation-only scientific meeting. With few, if any, implications for the general public, it's unlikely that medical news reporters will cover the company's data.

On the other end of the spectrum, Pfizer takes a much more conservative approach to research communications. "We never issue press releases on Phase I data," says Pfizer spokesperson Mariann Caprino. "We only report on Phase III studies presented at scientific meetings or data from studies done after a drug's approval. Even for the data on Viagra, we sent out only one release just prior to approval."

Although Schwartz and Woloshin recommend that medical journals' exercise more caution in their media relations practices, pharma companies and their public relations consultants might do so as well to avoid public and competitors' criticism of preliminary research until they can further substantiate it.

Laura Schoen, president of global healthcare at Weber Shandwick Worldwide, says PR agencies should manage their clients' expectations for premature media coverage and align their communications timetables with more appropriate, newsworthy research findings to enhance their credibility.

Although several articles in the special JAMA issue allude to a dilution of the credibility of peer-reviewed publications by a proliferation of lower-tier titles, medical journal articles are still one of the best vehicles for communicating scientific information to prescribing physicians. Whether or not that information is appropriate for consumers' eyes is another story.

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