Friday, June 29, 2007

Key Opinion Leaders as Pokemon Cards

Anyone who has raised children over the last decade knows something about Pokemon cards. Each card features a fantasy creature drawn in anime style, and each creature is endowed with special powers. Armed with stacks of these cards, kids (like my son) compete with one another in elaborate Pokemon tournaments.

I was reminded of Pokemon by
Pharmalot's recent posting of email exchanges among Pfizer employees about an anonymous and mythical "Dr. SM." Dr. SM is a cardiologist in New Haven who can be counted upon to say great things about the Pfizer HIV drug Viracept. In Pokemon terminology, SM would be considered a "valuable attack card" with a large number of "damage" points (Charizard, above, has 100 damage points, making him highly sought after).

Pharmalot posted the following e-mail in which a Pfizer regional sales manager directs field reps to make sure that the Dr. SM Pokemon card is played frequently:

From: REDACTED> Sent: Friday, October 14, 2005 4:45 PM> To: O’Keeffe, Dennis F; Stewart, Richard (Agouron); Deramus, Lisa;Snyder, Elizabeth L; Fazzina, Douglas; Glazer, Bruce; Weiss, Lawrence;Raymond, James; Turner, Edward> Subject: SM>

I met with REDACTED earlier this week and he has found out that Dr.SM, a cardiologist from New Haven, is not available to provide presentations concerning CV risk of ARV therapy until after January 1st of 2006. He is completely booked until that time. Dr. SM’s presentation provides a very positive supportive message on the use of Viracept as part of a viable and safe component of HAART therapy. I would like to see this speaker utilized in each of the territories during the current sales year. Please look at your territory strategically and decide where this type of speaker could best be put to use and provide me with two tentative dates and locations where you would like to use Dr. SM in either a dinner program or roundtable type venue. Send your information to REDACTED and CC me, so that we can work to get him lined up for you as soon as possible.> > Thanks> >> > REDACTED

This message provides a fascinating glimpse into how most accredited medical education in the U.S. is actually planned. While education grants are said to be "independent," and while the funding pharmaceutical firms are said to have no role in determining content, the reality is that the companies are in control of the marketing message at all times. Ken Johnson, of PHRMA, says that there are "no strings attached" to industry funding of medical education. That's true, as long as the unbiased speaker "provides a very positive supportive message on the use of (fill in blank with name of sponsor's product)".

File this particular Pokemon card under: "Twentieth century artifacts to keep out of the time capsule."


Anonymous said...

Don't mix apples and oranges. Your email exchange is obviously about using Dr. SM for promotional speaking, not "educational activities," and has nothing to do with accredited medical education. The PHRMA guy is talking about CME activites funded by the pharmaceutical industry, not promotional speaking. Why do you write about the two without distinguishing between them? You should know better.

Daniel Carlat said...


It's never so cut and dried in this world of blurred rules and ethics. A month after the manager's directive to use Dr. SM, we see that BMC was already requesting him for a CME activity, and a Pfizer rep was eagerly facilitiating. Promotional speaking = CME.

Anonymous said...

You are mischaracterising this, in my opinion. Promotional speaking is very different from CME. CME is handled by a grants department apart from marketing with no strings attached. Promotional speaking on behalf of a product has full disclosure. You're conveniently blurring the line here to further your agenda.