“Though the results of drug studies often make newspaper headlines, you have to wonder whether they prove anything at all.”
– David H. Freedman (2010)
To understand how so many faulty medications are allowed to enter the market you need to know more about the drug testing process and how drugs are approved. There are many different ways to game the system and make a drug seem more effective than it really is.
Science is a wonderful thing. It’s the only weapon we have against ignorance and dogma, which bring immeasurable amounts of harm and suffering into this world. But unfortunately, science isn’t perfect, and it can easily be manipulated by those with ulterior motives. While flawed or deceitful findings have a way of correcting themselves over time, it can take quite a while for this to occur. A drug can be on the market several decades before independent research shows it to be ineffective or dangerous, and by then the status quo is often so entrenched that there’s a reluctance to change course. Doctors and psychiatrists will go right on prescribing it in spite of its ineffectiveness. You can see this happening right now with antidepressants. Even though the science is pretty convincing that they do nothing to help cure depression (a conclusion that anyone who examines the evidence will reluctantly admit), these same experts argue we should continue using them anyway because patients believe they work. (Begley, 2010) Antidepressants are little more than an expensive and harmful placebo, but I see no circumstance under which they will be yanked from the market anytime soon.
Who conducts pharmaceutical drug testing?
Companies are responsible for conducting their own testing when it comes to the drugs they submit for approval. This was intended to ensure taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the bill, but it also creates a situation where the fox is in charge of guarding the hen house.
Meanwhile, less and less medical testing is being done by independent researchers, and more and more of it is directed by the industry. In 1994, around 70% of clinical researchers were affiliated with academic medical centers. By 2006 this number had dropped to just 36%. Of this latter group, more than a third of the grants to run their clinical trials came from the industry. (Rosen, 2012) So not only do drug companies control the research used to get drugs approved, but they hold significant influence over the medical research field in general.
Making matters worse is the fact that these contracts typically include gag orders that prevent researchers from ever disclosing what they find, giving drug companies total control over the information about their drugs. “It’s deeply unethical when patients volunteer to benefit science, and then we let drug companies decide that we cannot get access to the raw data,” says Peter Gotzsche, a clinician researcher. “The testing of drugs should be a public enterprise.” (Kwon, 2016)