And in a story appearing shortly before Christmas, Fauber detailed how a 46-year-old gospel singer and former construction worker injured on the job died of an accidental dose of opioids―including the drug tramadol, thought to pose little threat. Fauber explained that the drug was not placed under the Controlled Substance Act and the FDA had failed to consider a key piece of research indicating tramadol had the potential to be abused. “Despite recent research affirming its abuse potential, restrictions on prescribing it are no more stringent than for Lipitor or Viagra,” he wrote. The man’s widow told the paper her husband never believed the drug was dangerous. “Tony’s thing was, the doctor gave it to him so it must be safe,” she said. Where were the regulators, the piece seemed to be asking.
Journalism that exposes how people make their money in questionable ways inevitably brings howls from the exposed. “My stories tend to get a lot of polarized comments,” Fauber told me. “But they tend to be three-to-one in favor.” A majority of readers believe revealing these conflicts is necessary and important for the benefit of the patients. But, he added, “there are folks who think it’s the liberal media going after doctors and drug companies. There’s a significant number of people who don’t like the idea of stories about conflicts of interest in medicine. They feel it’s a private concern between doctors and drug companies. It’s a laissez faire attitude about this stuff.”
What about the medical businesses whose practices Fauber has dissected? Drug companies have a way of adapting and responding to criticism, he says. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has banned the practice of doctors doing promotional speaking on behalf of drug companies. So drug companies now use private doctors not tied to the institution to deliver their messages and help sell their products.
As recently as five or seven years ago, there wasn’t much media interest in covering conflicts of interest in medicine. The work of the Journal Sentinel and MedPage Today—as well as ProPublica’s continuing disclosures about money medical practitioners receive from drug and device makers—shows this is fertile terrain. “It’s a hard topic to get into if you’re a new reporter,” says Fauber. “You have to have the backing of editors and know where to look. These stories often hide out in the shadowy world where business and medicine hook up.” The goals of business and medicine are often not compatible, he pointed out. What’s good for the corporate bottom line is not always good for patients. And that’s exactly the spot where good journalism like the kind Fauber is doing comes in.
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