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Playing Doctor: Profile Of A Medical Ghostwriter

Dr. Carl Elliott writes about ghostwriting in the December issue of The Atlantic magazine, “Playing Doctor: How to spin pharmaceutical research.” He profiles a young scientist (“David”) who became a ghostwriter about 10 years ago.

Excerpts:

“Ghostwritten articles surface again and again in litigation (in cases concerning Vioxx, Fen-Phen, Zyprexa, Premarin, Neurontin, and Zoloft, to mention just a few). Years before the Avandia scandal, GlaxoSmithKline paid $2.5 million to the State of New York to settle a lawsuit alleging that it had concealed studies suggesting an increased risk of suicidal behavior in children and teenagers taking Paxil, most notoriously in an article “authored” by Dr. Martin Keller of Brown University. One 2003 study in The British Journal of Psychiatry found that ghostwriters working for a single medical-communications agency had produced more than half of all medical-journal articles published on Zoloft over a three-year period.

To many critics, the moral outrage of ghostwriting is like that of plagiarism: academic physicians are getting credit for articles they didn’t actually write. To David, letting someone else take the credit for his work is a minor humiliation. The real problem, of course, is much worse: spinning data perverts science. It also downplays risks that can lead to serious injuries, and deaths. As David puts it, “The moral crime I was being asked to commit was to do with truthfulness.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview Blog*

Mainstream Media’s Sub-Par Health Coverage, Part 2

I recently wrote about an experience that I had with a reporter (Erica Mitrano) who interviewed me about energy healing at Calvert Memorial Hospital in southern Maryland. Erica was very friendly and inquisitive, and we had a nice conversation about the lack of scientific evidence supporting any energy healing modality. I thought it would be fun to post what we had discussed at SBM, and then wait to see what trickled down into the finished piece.

When the final article appeared I was very disappointed. Not only was I not quoted, but there was no skeptical counterpoint at all. The story read like an unquestioning endorsement of junk science, and I wondered if it was worth it to continue speaking to journalists to offer expert advice. It seemed to me that this experience was emblematic of all that’s wrong with health reporting these days. (Just ask Gary Schwitzer, who has recently given up on reviewing TV health stories in mainstream media since they are generally so inaccurate.) Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Science-Based Medicine*

Medical Content Sweatshops: What Are They Smoking?

A member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) freelance listserve recently posted this help-wanted ad from Craig’s List:   

“We’re looking for an experienced analyst/wordsmith to make sense of the health care bill. We will pay a per-project fee for a qualified writer to put some hard work into summarizing the bill in an 8-10 page white paper. We have a strong preference for individuals with a background in Sociology, Policy Research, Health Care, or statistical analysis. Above all, however, you should have some clippings to point us to so we can evaluate your writing chops. As you can see, this report will include a lot of information, but it’s important that you are succinct and clear in your prose. Think of it as a detailed study done by a respected think tank, but  produced for the average consumer.”

The “fee” (and I use the term loosely) for this “detailed study” (?) is $100, which wouldn’t even cover the cost of toner to print out the full bill for reading! (Hence the title of this blog.)

The people behind this posting are not the only ones smoking something, however. Content sweatshop Demand Inc has also been trolling for writers, offering what amounts to a few pennies a word for churning out short articles on topics that a mathematical equation has determined will bring in the most webpage visitors, spiking ad revenue. The sad part is that thousands of my fellow freelancers have taken up the challenge earning, if they’re lucky, about $20 an hour (before taxes and with all expenses out of their own pocket). Most earn far less. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at A Medical Writer's Musings on Medicine and Health Care*

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Latest Book Reviews

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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