By now you have probably seen John Oliver’s comic take on the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on doctors’ prescribing habits. Media outlets from Mother Jones to the Wall Street Journal commented admiringly, and even the American Medical Association felt compelled to declare they were “committed to transparency” around drug company payments to doctors.But satire will do very little to focus on the real problem if we’re distracted by the humor inherent in self-important doctors being bought off by a steak. What’s not funny is that America is the most medicated nation on earth, with some 70 percent of Americans taking prescription drugs—yet we have worse health outcomes than other industrialized countries. Part of the problem may be the drugs themselves. As Slate’s devastating expose on the fraud in clinical drug trials shows us: We don’t know much about the drugs we prescribe.
But as physicians, we have very little good information to go on. Even our most prestigious journals publish research based on falsified studies, according to Charles Seife, a journalism professor whose class spent a semester trying to figure out why the data don’t get corrected once research fraud comes to light. “As a result,” Seife writes, “nobody ever finds out which data is bogus, which experiments are tainted, and which drugs might be on the market under false pretenses.”