Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Prescribing drugs 'off-label': an ethical prescription

More than one in five of the prescriptions U.S. doctors write for 160 common drugs is for a use other than that approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The practice is perfectly legal, though patients are largely in the dark about what "indications" or uses the FDA has approved for different prescription medications. (You can, however, always check the FDA-approved product labels for a prescription drug here.).

These "off-label uses" have not been scrutinized by the FDA for safety and effectiveness. It's not legal for drug companies actively to promote a drug for "off-label" purposes. But the practice means big money for drug makers, and some do it anyway (just last month, Pfizer agreed to plead guilty to promoting off-label uses for some of its medications and was fined $2.3 billion by the Justice Department, according to the Justice Department website).

So, while it's legal, the practice is controversial.

That leaves doctors, who often feel immense pressure to offer something--anything--to relieve a patient's suffering, in uncharted ethical waters. In some cases, the "off-label" use of a drug might be just the treatment the patient needed. But it might just as likely be a waste of time and money--or worse, pose unpredictable dangers to the patient. When "everybody's doing it" (and, yes, even physicians say stuff like that sometimes), what's a physician to do?


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