How safe are the drugs you are taking? How effective are they for their intended purpose? Where do you get that information? According to Alan Cassels, a pharmaceutical policy researcher from UVic, drug safety watchdogs may be struggling to keep afloat.
Most of the information about the risks and benefits of a drug comes from studies funded by the manufacturer of the drug itself. Physicians are educated on how to prescribe medications largely by sales representatives. Pharmacists and doctors get another load of information from advertisements in journals, magazines and television. With such marketing interests it is hard to know if the material presented is accurate and unbiased.
In Canada one group called the Therapeutics Initiative (TI) based out of UBC has tried to set itself apart as an unbiased drug evaluator. Proudly stating that their research has no financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, their work represents a potential threat to the glossy data that got a particular drug approved in the first place. Their careful dissection of data guides physicians and pharmacists on best practices for prescribing. Unfortunately, the TI may be in jeopardy due to a sudden drop of funding. This insult comes on the heels of a scandal surrounding a mass firing of employees and one co-op student from UVIC, Rod MacIsaac.
Rod MacIsaac was a UVIC student working on a project that was supposed to investigate the safety and efficacy of several drugs used to help people quit smoking. One such drug was the new drug Champix. This drug had some impressive data a few years ago despite the risk of unwanted side effects. Three days before the completion of his project, he was fired. Never before has a co-op student been fired. Of course, we will never know what he had hoped to share of his research now that he is deceased. My heartfelt condolences go to his family.
As for the nine people who suddenly lost their jobs, grievances and lawsuits against the Ministry of Health pharmaceuticals division are in process and currently “the matter is under investigation.”
What does this mean for you, the consumer? We need independent drug safety and efficacy evaluators. Even if a drug has inherent risks, it is important to have the patient understand the risk-benefit ratio before consenting to drug treatment. Remember the Vioxx scandal: The risk of serious cardiovascular events increased with the use of the drug. Nevertheless, even with this knowledge, Vioxx is prescribed today for those who choose to take that risk.
In conclusion, be cautious about the hopeful benefits of a new drug. Older drugs have a track record, good or bad, but at least more known. Let us support independent evaluators because pharmaceutical interventions are inevitably a part of our culture. We want the security of knowing what we are getting into.
— Dr. Tara Macart is a regular
columnist with The NEWS.