Saturday, January 28, 2012

Kristin Barker, a sociologist at Oregon State University, has a fascinating, fun to read article in a recent issue of Social Science & Medicine - "Listening to Lyrica: contested illnesses and pharmaceutical determinism."

In my psychiatric practice I was often asked to see patients with mysterious symptoms. Many of the patients resented being asked to see a psychiatrist, feeling they were being sloughed off as whiners, hypochondriacs, or malingerers and told that their symptoms were "all in the head." There was no doubt that they were suffering. But what were they suffering from?

Some of these patients had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia syndrome, a condition of unkown etiology characterized by chronic widespread musculoskeletal pain, multiple tender points, sleep disturbance, fatigue, and other "non-specific" symptoms. In June 2007 the FDA approved an antiseizure medication - appealingly branded as "Lyrica" - for treatment of fibromyalgia. Having a drug officially endorsed as treatment for their condition went a long way towards validating the symptoms as reflecting a "real" illness.

Barker makes three key points:
  • Having a treatment strengthens belief in the disease. If there's a pill that helps, the person must be ill. From a sociological perspective, Lyrica wasn't simply treating a condition, it was validating the condition as real!
  • Direct to consumer advertising (DTCA) has a powerful impact on social behavior. Insofar as Lyrica ads reduced the blame patients often experienced, the ads were a boon.
  • But the ads, which helped make Lyrica a billion dollar blockbuster drug for Pfizer, did so in part by showing glamorous women (actresses) supposedly with the condition, and by portraying the drug as a magical cure. In real life Lyrica rarely acts in the magical way the ads suggest. Some women with the condition felt that the ads led to their being blamed for not getting fully well as the actress portrayed. (For an example of such an advertisement, see here.)
Barker concludes that Lyrica has been a decidedly mixed blessing. It contributed to diminished blaming of the victim. It gave physicians and patients an additional intervention to try. But it fostered false hopes and led to further medicalization - women who might have recovered from a bad spell without diagnosis or medical intervention were persuaded that they had an illness and needed a drug. And when Lyrica didn't perform as the ads suggested it would, some women were blamed for refusing to get better.

(For another post about blaming the victim, see here.)

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