Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Patient Safety

Can Big Pharma put patients first?

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 21 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3285
  1. Edward Davies, US news and features editor, BMJ

Edward Davies speaks to the chief medical officers charged with keeping patient safety at the heart of the drug industry

When GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) paid out a $3bn (£1.9bn; €2.3bn) settlement last year it was the largest ever payout for a drug company and was headline news across the world.1

Within GSK, however, it had been seen to be coming for some time. When Andrew Witty took over as chief executive, problems were already on the horizon, says Ellen Strahlman, the company’s former chief medical office (CMO): “Andrew came in in 2008 and had this looming settlement in front of him and asked why did this happen? There were vocal concerns about the timeliness of some data and some major product liability issues, such as with Avandia.”

Seeing something had to change one of Witty’s initial moves was to appoint Strahlman as the first of a new breed of chief medical officer for GSK, and for the industry as a whole.

“This was the best way to stop conflict of interests and was a huge step forward for these companies, which is why I took the job,” says Strahlman.

Since then there has been a movement within the industry to have a post such as this at or near the top level of almost every company. Given their relative novelty there are few examples of how far the individuals can influence a company in the long lifecycle of a drug, for example, and as yet it is hard to pin down their exact remit as nomenclature and responsibilities vary enormously between different firms. But common to all is the view that there needs to be a senior medical voice at the top table who speaks for the patient in terms of safety, who can be turned to by business leaders …

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