Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Medscape Presents: The Brintellix Show

As I wrote in part one of my Medscape review, the website gets high marks for up-to-the-minute coverage of psychiatric news, and it deserves kudos for posting a ton of textbook-like content on disorders and drugs. I wasn’t so thrilled with its "un-privacy" policy, which results in your personal info and browsing history being sold to third parties. 

Today we get into the dark side of Medscape Psychiatry, which is their industry-funded CME. 

Medscape Psychiatry CME Overview

Medscape offers four different categories of CME on its “CME and Education” page.  "Clinical Briefs" and "Journal Articles" are mostly not industry funded, whereas "Patient Cases" and "Knowledge and Practice" are generally industry products.  

Brintellix (vortioxetine) Background

To give you a little context, Brintellix is the latest antidepressant to be FDA approved. It is being marketed as a "multimodal" antidepressant because it has effects on several different receptor sites. The company has produced some interesting data showing that Brintellix may cause fewer sexual side effects than other antidepressants, and that it may help improve the slowed-down thinking that is common with depression. But it is not FDA approved for either of these potential advantages, because thus far, the data are far from definitive.

Medscape and Takeda/Lundbeck

Medscape is the largest single recipient of pharmaceutical CME grants among all U.S. medical communications companies. According to an article in JAMA, it received $20,315,730 in 2010, the last year for which such data were aggregated. I don't know how much the company is receiving from Takeda/Lundbeck for producing CME programs, but it's probably a lot. If you click through Medscape's most technologically sophisticated online courses, a high proportion are funded by this duo.

Here are some of the titles of the courses:

Commercial Bias in One of the Courses

All of the courses listed above are likely biased in favor of Brintellix--there wouldn't be much point in paying Medscape to produce them otherwise. Since blogging is not my day job, I chose only one of them to watch: The Pharmacology of MDD Treatment: Building a Foundation With a Focus on 5-HT.

This course begins with four multiple choice questions, which are supposed to test your knowledge before you learn. Here's one of them:

Which of the following antidepressants manipulates the most serotonin receptors at once?
The correct answer? Vortioxetine. 

This is a clever way to prime the pump, to get the audience thinking about the promoted drug.

Next, we get a slide purporting to give an overview of the history of antidepressant drug development.

The big red bubble labeled MMD refers to "multimodal drug", ie., vortioxetine. That's the latest one. The implication is that it's the most technically advanced. 

Later in the program, there are a few slides highlighting "new antidepressants." Only one antidepressant gets prominently featured on two slides:

The more crucial question is not "how many ways can one drug manipulate 5-HT" (even the manufacturer states the "clinical relevance" of the drug's many serotonin actions is "unknown") but rather "how many ways can one communication company manipulate doctors's prescribing practices?"

To make their point crystal clear, one of the experts in the video glowingly endorses Brintellix, saying that its multimodal mechanism is like packing a bunch of great medicines into one:

"Vortioxetine is a great example of this multimodal thing we were talking about. It is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, but it also is a very strong agonist at 5-HT1A, which we said you want to have an agonist there. It also is a powerful antagonist at 5-HT3 which and a powerful antagonist at 5-HT7. On paper, here is a drug that has some of these qualities we have been talking about that could make it possibly a multimodal agent almost like a built in augmentation strategy in 1 pill, which certainly would be, just practically, a little easier for patients than having to take more than 1 medicine, which we often have to do.[3-6]"

A bit later, he goes even further, implying that Brintellix uniquely targets three common symptoms of depression:

"Again, right now, the data clearly show the 3 most common residual symptoms, even with people who have a response to an antidepressant are insomnia, cognitive impairment, and fatigue. I think those are things that are not well addressed by an SSRI alone. Thinking more sophisticated, multimodal actions whether it is 1 pill that has that built in augmentation. I think that is where the field is going."
Summing up Medscape
Since the last time I reviewed a psychiatric website, I assigned a letter grade, I'll give Medscape one as well: a B-. 
Why? It gets an A for delivering bite-sized psychiatric news clips on its non-CME page, an A- for providing free but dry drug and disorders info, and an F for failing to comply with Standard 5 of ACCME's Standards for Commercial Support in its CME courses. Among other things, Standard 5 forbids a CME program from promoting a "specific proprietatry business interest of a commercial interest", and it requires that presentations "must give a balanced view of therapeutic options." 
I'm surprised that Medscape is still resorting to these shenanigans, but I guess that's what butters their bread. 

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