Medical Journals May Have Bias or Conflicts

In the June 5, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association there are several studies and articles on the weaknesses and possible conflicts of articles that appear in a variety of medical journals. The story also reported in the June 5, 2002 Intelihealth starts by stating, ” One of world’s leading medical journals has put itself and its competitors under the microscope with research showing that published studies are sometimes misleading and frequently fail to mention weaknesses.”

Rob Logan, director of the Science Journalism centre at the University of Missouri-Columbia stated ” (this) underscores that the findings presented in the press and medical journals are not always facts or as certain as they seem”. Dr. Catherine DeAngelis, JAMA’s editor said that problems are most likely to occur in research funded by drug companies, which have a vested interest in findings that make their products look good. The article also stated that several Journal editors are also concerned that drug manufacturers sometimes unduly influence how researchers report research results, and even suppress unfavorable findings.

Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine addresses the issue of conflicts of interest by stating that many top journals require researchers to disclose any ties to drug companies. However, he admits there is a weakness in that system in that editors rely on researchers to be truthful. Additionally, the experts who do the peer reviews are not accountable. Most print medical journals allow peer reviewers to remain anonymous. This means that if the peer reviewers have conflicts of interest it will go unnoticed.

Dr. Jim Nuovo of the University of California at Davis stated in one article that medical journal studies on new treatments often use only the most favorable statistic in reporting results. He went on to say, “Most reported only the “relative risk reduction” linked to a specific treatment, which is the percentage difference between drug-treated patients and those in a placebo group. That figure is more misleading than the “absolute risk reduction,” which measures the actual difference between the treatment results compared with the placebo group.” Nuovo said. “For example, if 5.1 percent of placebo-treated patients had heart attacks compared with 3.7 percent of drug patients, the absolute risk reduction in the drug group would be 1.4 percent. But researchers could use the relative risk reduction to claim that the drug lowers the risk of a heart attack 34 percent – which sounds a lot more impressive.”