Regular readers of this blog will remember my earlier article on Rebecca Riley, the young girl whose overtreatment with powerful psychiatric drugs may have led to her death.
Now it turns out that some psychiatrists may actually be getting paid by the drug industry to give kids powerful drugs! And this is in spite of an almost complete lack of evidence that these drugs work or are safe for children.
The New York Times has an article called Psychiatrists, Children, and Drug Industry’s Role, and this scary article documents the secretive practice of paying psychiatrists to prescribe certain drugs.
The article documents that more than half a million children are now receiving atypical antipsychotics such as Risperdal, Seroquel, Zyprexa, Abilify, and Geodon. These drugs have never been tested on or approved for use in children!
In Minnesota alone, the only state that requires such reporting, from 2000 to 2005 payments from pharmaceutical companies to psychiatrists soared by six times, to $1.6 million, and the rates of prescribing antipsychotics to children went up by nine times.
And the Times found that the money worked. Those psychiatrists who received more than $5000 from the drug companies wrote 3 times as many prescriptions for atypical antipsychotics than those doctors who got less or no money. Other interesting figures are that the average payment to psychiatrists was $1750, with a maximum of $689,000. (Nice work if you can get it!)
I should point out that atypical antipsychotics are not benign drugs. Side effects can include rapid weight gain that leads to diabetes, and movement disorders such as tics and dystonia, which can lead to a lifelong muscle disorder.
The Times describes one unfortunate girl, Anya Bailey, who was given Risperdal for an eating disorder by her psychiatrist George Realmuto, who had received more than $7000 from Johnson and Johnson, the maker of Risperdal.
Although the drug helped her gain weight, she also developed a painful and permanent dystonia in her neck that now causes her chronic pain and a movement disorder, even after stopping the drug.
And she was never given any counseling for her problems, only drugs!
So what can we learn from this article? First of all, the practice of paying psychiatrists to prescribe certain medications is widespread, but only Minnesota requires full disclosure. We should pressure our legislatures to mandate full disclosure in every state. Write to your state and federal congress and senate and ask them to either ban this practice or to require full disclosure, on the web, by name of doctors, of how much money is given by each drug company.
Secondly, when you take your child to a psychiatrist, you should ask them for a full written disclosure of any money they received in the last few years from drug companies for speaking, or for research. Payments to psychiatrists (and other M.D.’s) are disguised as speaking honorariums or research payments, but when a doctor receives $5000 for giving one or two talks, it is safe to say that they are being paid for something else. If the psychiatrist admits to receiving money, then you should probably find another psychiatrist, as this creates a bias to prescribe that I do not think can be overcome.
Third, you should be dubious about any suggestion to give your child an antipsychotic medication for any diagnosis other than true psychosis. This means that unless your child is actively hallucinating, and delusional, i.e. “crazy” there is no evidence that antipsychotics will help them. For instance, there was only one well-controlled study of the use of atypical antipsychotics in bipolar illness in children, and it found little or no difference between using the antipsychotic and not using it. And most of the children in the group receiving the antipsychotic dropped out of the study due to side effects. A second study by the same researchers found no advantage to using antipsychotics.
Fourth, consider taking your child to a psychologist or counselor rather than a psychiatrist. Psychologists don’t receive money to influence their treatment decisions and use behavioral approaches that don’t have side effects. And there is much more research evidence that supports the use of these behavioral approaches in childhood disorders. Dangerous medications should be reserved for second or third line treatments only. Remember the old saying that to a young boy with a hammer everything becomes a nail, similarly to a doctor whose specialty is giving drugs, all problems become biochemical.
Finally, let’s put pressure on our legislators to outlaw this thinly disguised bribery, which threatens the health of children and adults. Shame on the pharmaceutical industry! And even more shame on psychiatrists, who of all people should be trustworthy and not willing to accept such bribes. I make the perhaps radical suggestion that patients boycott psychiatrists who accept money from drug manufacturers. If doctors can’t earn a decent living without taking payments from drug companies that often have the appearance of bribes, then perhaps they need a new profession. I realize that there are decent, honest psychiatrists who either don’t take drug company money or don’t let it influence them, but I suggest that it may be hard to tell the difference unless psychiatrists employ full disclosure.
Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions
Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.