The DSM Drama (“Part V”)

Dr. Stefan P. Kruszewski, in an opinion piece written for ABC News entitled “Doctors’ Conflicting Interests Can Cost Money and Lives, and Hinder Medical Discoveries,” warns against the danger of medical practitioners recommending specific drugs as part of treatment while being paid to speak, advocate, and do research for the companies that manufacture them.

After writing a letter expressing concerns about such practices to the Journal of American Medical Association, the associate editor responded (via e-mail) by shrugging such concerns off as trivial.

During the review process, an associate editor at the journal asked the question (and inadvertently copied me on an email that had been sent to another associate editor), “What’s the big deal? What’s all this [expletive deleted] about conflicts of interest?” (see link)

Kruszewski, however, thinks such practices are actually very dangerous.  He writes:

But I do worry, because drug promotion and clinical decision-making that are brokered on the backs of dollar bills have a greater chance of causing serious adverse outcomes, including illnesses and death. If a physician embellishes the effectiveness of a drug or minimizes its risk, that directly hurts you and me.  Physicians who are heavily supported by pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers are not forming independent, unbiased decisions. Instead, their brains have been lined with gifts, perks and money, which influences their rose-colored opinions. (see link)

The conflict of interest does not stop at Dr. Kruszewski’s worries and the problem he points to can unfortunately be traced to the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which is an authoritative taxonomy of mental disorders.  Worries of financial conflicts plagued the fourth installment of the DSM (the DSM IV) and with the DSM V on the horizon, similar criticisms are voiced.

The manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, details the diagnostic criteria for each and every psychiatric disorder, many of which have pharmacological treatments. After the 1994 release of DSM-4, the APA instituted a policy requiring expert advisors to disclose drug industry ties. But the move toward transparency did little to cut down on conflicts, with nearly 70 percent of DSM-5 task force members reporting financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies — up from 57 percent for DSM-4. (see link)

The greatest risk of conflict of interest remains with the taxonomizing and eventual diagnosing of disorders that are intimately linked with the manufacturing of drugs intended to treat these disorders.  Katie Moisse writes:

Some of most conflicted panels are those for which drugs represent the first line of treatment, with two-thirds of the mood disorders panel, 83 percent of the psychotic disorders panel and 100 percent of the sleep disorders panel disclosing “ties to the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the medications used to treat these disorders or to companies that service the pharmaceutical industry,” according to the study. (see link)

This is not to suggest, of course, that medical professionals have malicious intent or that they are only interested in the health of their own bank accounts.  However, there remains a serious worry about the taxonomy itself as well as about future diagnoses and treatment.  To add to the turbulent atmosphere surrounding the DSM V, the introduction of certain new diagnoses has also been criticized.

The DSM-5 has also drawn criticism for introducing new diagnoses that some experts argue lack scientific evidence. Dr. Allen Frances, who chaired the revisions committee for DSM-4, said the new additions would “radically and recklessly” expand the boundaries of psychiatry.  “They’re at the boundary of normality,” said Frances, who is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University. “And these days, most diagnostic decisions are not made by psychiatrists trained to distinguish between the two. Most are made by primary care doctors who see a patient for about seven minutes and write a prescription.” (see link)

I think we have a serious problem on our hands if drug companies get to determine the taxonomy of mental disorders and medical doctors diagnose and prescribe drugs in accordance with the financial interests of these drug manufacturers.  Even if things are not as bad as they sound, they seem to be getting worse (“with nearly 70 percent of DSM-5 task force members reporting financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies — up from 57 percent for DSM-4”).  Should we start going to the accountants of pharmaceutical companies for advice?  Now that would be absurd, but if pharmaceutical companies have as much sway over what is defined as a mental disorder and what treatment is pursued as Moisse suggests, then perhaps we might as well just bypass the middleman (the local mental health professional) and go directly to the source!  Why are individuals who are directly funded by drug manufacturers allowed to make executive decisions on the DSM V?  James Scully, APA director, sees no other way.

APA medical director and CEO Dr. James Scully insisted the DSM-5 development process “is the most open and transparent of any previous edition of the DSM.”  “We wanted to include a wide variety of scientists and researchers with a range of expertise and viewpoints in the DSM-5 process. Excluding everyone with direct or indirect funding from the industry would unreasonably limit the participation of leading mental health experts in the DSM-5 development process,” he said in a statement. (see link)

Lisa Cosgrove, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston is of a different opinion:

Cosgrove said she believes there are plenty mental health professionals with no financial ties to drug companies. If necessary, experts with conflicts could still participate in the process as non-voting advisors, she said.  “My best hope would be for the APA to respond in a substantive way to the concerns we’ve raised,” she said. “They have an opportunity here to make a correction that would give the appearance, if not the reality of developing a diagnostic instrument that’s objective and has integrity.” (see link)

I hardly think that the mental health professionals with no financial ties to drug companies live at or just above the poverty line, so why, unless a researcher is explicitly doing research for a certain pharmaceutical company, does the profession open itself to such criticisms by allowing the kinds of practices Kruszewski and Cosgrove object to?

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