'No' to drug money
Dr. Daniel J. Carlat wants to limit corporate sway over psychiatry By
Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff | May 7, 2007
NEWBURYPORT -- There are names for what Dr. Daniel J. Carlat once was,
and he does not hesitate to use them: "Drug whore," he suggested calmly.
"There's really no nice way to say it. If you're being paid to offer an
opinion you're not all that confident that you believe, you're corrupt,"
Six years ago, Carlat, a psychiatrist and textbook author who trained at
Massachusetts General Hospital, found himself in demand by drug
Like a great many prominent psychiatrists, he was offered generous sums
to give instructional talks about medications at lunches and dinners
colleagues: $500 or more per "lunch-and-learn," $1,000 or more per
He did it for about a year, speaking mainly about antidepressants, for a
total of $30,000 or so beyond his salary of about $120,000.
But then his conscience rebelled. A drug salesman chided him one day for
showing "less enthusiasm for our product" than usual and "I had a kind
of epiphany," said Carlat, also on the faculty of the Tufts University
School of Medicine. "I realized the obvious -- that I was being paid to
say good things about drugs, regardless of what my actual opinions
He not only walked away from the extra money and perks, he resolved to
fight what he saw as an increasingly pernicious influence on psychiatric
These days, operating from an old brick building in this quaint seaside
town, he sees patients and puts out The Carlat Psychiatry Report, a
monthly newsletter on psychiatric developments that aims to be more
aggressively free of drug-company influence than any other, from its
content to the financial ties of its writers.
Potential conflicts of interest are a growing concern in all of
medicine, from cancer doctors who own scanning centers to cardiologists
who prescribe specific blood-pressure drugs while accepting payments
from companies that make them. Several states have recently passed laws
mandating that drug-makers report such ties, but the great majority of
payments remain undisclosed.
By all indications, "psychiatrists are among the most conflicted of the
medical specialties," said Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer , a Tufts University
professor and author of "On the Take," a book about what he describes as
medicine's complicity with big business. With new drugs available for
common conditions such as anxiety and depression, the pharmaceutical
industry has been recruiting armies of psychiatrists to market them in
recent years, he said.
He has met Carlat, Kassirer said, and "I'd say he's the real thing. He
honestly believes that psychiatry has gone too far, and by the way, so
Not everyone agrees that company payments are a problem in psychiatry.
Like many doctors, psychiatrists who accept money tend to argue that
they are not about to be swayed by the consulting fees or research
grants they get from companies.
From the industry point of view, drug companies are simply paying the
market rate for bona-fide services and the expertise that prominent
psychiatrists can provide, said Scott Lassman , a spokesman for PhARMA,
the national trade association for pharmaceutical companies.
"The people who are doing this are professionals and care a lot more
about their reputation in the community than about whatever money
they're making by providing these services," he said. "I don't think
they're going to say anything that they don't believe, and the companies
certainly wouldn't want them to."
In psychiatry, Carlat said, one drug tends to be much like another, and
a psychiatrist may -- as he once did -- rationalize that it does no harm
to patients to push one drug over another.
But when he started to look around at the bigger picture of drug
influence on psychiatry, "I said, 'This is unbelievable! Our field as a
whole is progressively being purchased lock, stock, and barrel by the
companies: this includes the diagnoses, the treatment guidelines, and
the national meetings."
Perhaps worst of all, Carlat said, drug companies have come to sponsor
so much of continuing medical education -- the courses that doctors must
take to retain their licenses -- that the companies can set much of the
"Instead of getting educated about psychotherapy, about how to better
manage our practices, about epidemiology and the public health concerns
of underserved populations, what we're getting is lecture after lecture
about how to diagnose depression and use antidepressants to treat it;
how to diagnose insomnia and use sleeping pills to treat it; how to
diagnose bipolar disorder and use mood stabilizers to treat it," he
In particular, Carlat said, he is appalled that his prestigious former
employer, Mass. General, has chosen to accept millions of dollars of
drug-company money to sponsor its continuing psychiatry courses. MGH
says that its pharmaceutical sponsors have no input on the courses.
Carlat's newsletter is by no means anti psychiatry; it is meant for
psychiatrists and their patients. Nor is it anti medication; Carlat
himself prescribes drugs in his private practice all the time, he said,
"because they work."
But it aims to cut through layers of drug advertising and studies
sponsored by drug companies to a relatively spin-free bottom line.
The Report might warn, for example, that a new drug is merely a tweaked
version of an older drug whose patent is about to expire -- meaning the
new drug is probably not worth its sticker price.
In 2004, the Report concluded that a new anti depressant, Cymbalta,
offered no significant advantages over existing drugs, and that its
maker, Eli Lilly, was massaging the data to make it look better than it
was. The article and its headline, "Cymbalta: Dual the Reuptake, Triple
drew a lengthy complaint from Eli Lilly, replete with 24 footnotes that
Carlat then published on the Report's website, with his own rebuttal.
The Report (online at thecarlat report.com) does carry interviews with
psychiatrists who have financial ties with drug companies, Carlat said,
but only because it is simply impossible to find prominent psychiatrists
without such ties. He asks experts to disclose any financial ties in
Carlat seems to have struck a nerve. From a tiny 2002 start-up, the
newsletter has grown to a circulation of 2,300 -- almost enough to begin
paying himself a salary for his three days a week of writing and
editing, Carlat said. Subscriptions range from $89 a year for
individuals to $149 for institutions.
Dr. Steven Sharfstein , immediate past president of the American
Psychiatric Association, the field's major professional group, said he
believes that Carlat may be part of a larger movement, "a change in
sensitivity and sensibility" about pharmaceutical industry involvement
Sharfstein said he has no hard data, "but I believe there's a trend that
people are moving away." His own hospital, Sheppard Pratt Health System
near Baltimore, has stopped letting drug companies sponsor lectures.
"So now we just don't have fancy snacks," he said. "It just didn't feel
Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg (at) globe.com.