Why is Big Pharma afraid of comparative effectiveness research?

President Obama’s economic stimulus plan includes funding for “comparative effectiveness research,” which would study various prescription drugs, along with medical treatments and devices, to determine which perform best for the least amount of money.

As the Washington Post describes the program:

What’s best for insomnia — Lunesta, at about $6 a pill, or Zolpidem, at $2?

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Should a man with prostate cancer choose radiation, surgery or “watchful waiting”?

Is it better to operate on a bad knee or get an injection of the joint fluid known as Visco.

To help doctors and patients decide, President Obama has dedicated $1.1 billion in the economic stimulus package for federal agencies to oversee studies on the merits of competing medical treatments.

The approach, known as comparative effectiveness research, is aimed at finding the best treatments at the best prices. Proponents say reducing ineffective or unproven care is one way to rein in health costs, which consume nearly 18 percent of the gross domestic product, straining family budgets, company profits and the federal government.

Big Pharma fought hard to remove this research from the stimulus bill, for obvious reasons — their business is based on maximizing profits, not maximizing cost-effectiveness.

As physician blogger Kevin MD writes:

Physicians need an authoritative source of unbiased data, untainted by the influence of drug companies and device manufacturers.

With treatments and medications announced daily, having an entity definitively compare these newer, and often more expensive, options with established treatment regimens will be particularly useful in everyday practice.

The only way to tackle such a huge project is with money, and indeed, the Obama administration recognizes this fact by including $1.1 billion in comparative effectiveness research in the economic stimulus package.

Clearly, the pharmaceutical and device industry would like both the public and physicians to continue to assume that “newer means better.” Not asking these questions allows them to continue promoting profit-making brand-name treatments.

Their motives in attempting to quash comparative effectiveness research could not be more obvious.

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Healthcare policy guru Ezra Klein adds:

The fight over comparative effectiveness research is really a fight over who controls information. Right now, the pharmaceutical industry pays for most of the research and funds the most effective research distribution service (this service, incidentally, comes in the form of leggy former-cheerleaders and Miss America contestants…). That’s good for the pharmaceutical industry, which can emphasize the research aligns best with their business strategy.

The threat of comparative effectiveness review is that Pharma loses control of the information. An alternative information pipeline opens up. This one, to use Kevin’s evocative sentence, would be “untainted by the influence of drug companies and device manufacturers.” (It also won’t be delivered by former cheerleaders.)…

But don’t begrudge Pharma its efforts. As Kevin says, “their motives in attempting to quash comparative effectiveness research could not be more obvious.” The current regime is good for profits. And protecting profits is Pharma’s job. But it’s not good for the public. And protecting the public welfare is the government’s job.