Playing for the Pharma team: Christy Clark switches jerseys on drug safety
Independent drug oversight finds itself unwelcome in British Columbia.
The TI is estimated to have saved the province an estimated $500-million in unnecessary drug expenditures. All for a cost of about $550,000 annually. But last September, the Ministry of Health told the Therapeutics Initiative to stop work pending the outcome of the government’s drug data investigation – despite the fact its probe never involved anyone working with the TI. In October, the government stopped making contract payments for the TI.
In the months since the province suspended its funding, the TI has relied on stopgap funding from UBC – putting it in what Jim Wright, the TI’s co-director, calls a “very precarious situation.”
To help ease the financial pressure, Wright and two other officials (all three of whom earn salaries elsewhere) have agreed to waive the honoraria the initiative was paying them.
“The key goal for us is to make sure people with the initiative don’t lose their appointments,” he says. “I intend to stay on and get the initiative back to a fully-funded situation. We need our data access restored and we need our funding back.”
Even before it stopped funding the Initiative, the ministry blocked TI researchers from accessing data in PharmaNet, the provincial database is widely considered to be North America’s best repository of drug data, containing comprehensive information from patients, clinicians and pharmacists throughout BC. Colin Dormuth, the scientist who serves as lead investigatorwith the initiative, says the ministry’s maneuvers all amount to a government attack on “important research into drug safety.”
"Most comprehensive data" in Canada, denied
When it comes to delays and barriers in getting access to PharmaNet data, no one has suffered more than the Colin Dormuth. In part, his problems stem from the fact he’s so prolific: over the past year alone he has published (often in collaboration with Maclure) a striking series of studies spotlighting key safety problems in pharmaceuticals, including acne medication, opioids, antibiotics, statins, heart drugs, and medications used to treat ADHD in children.
Much of this impressive output has been spawned by Dormuth's participation in a national collaboration known as the Drug Safety and Effectiveness Network. Financed with a $30 million federal grant, DSEN is the biggest national investigation into drug safety in Canadian history. As a British Columbian, Dormuth ought to have had crucial, direct access to PharmaNet data that would significantly boost DSEN's scientific significance. But for reasons he describes as "utterly mystifying," that access to de-identified data was suspended last summer, and remains so.
Now, rather than using free data from B.C., Dormuth has been required to spend over $100,000 of taxpayer money to purchase data from the U.S.
Dr. David Henry, CEO of Toronto's Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, Canada's preeminent centre for science-based health policy development, describes the situation as extremely distressing.