The Washington Post recently decided to demonize doctors, with a headline trumpeting, “An effective eye drug is available for $50, but many doctors choose a $2000 alternative.” The article tells the story of a miracle drug treatment for wet macular degeneration, which is one of the leading causes of blindness. Avastin was approved in 2004 for treatment of colon cancer. It targets a protein called VGEF, thereby decreasing harmful blood vessel growth in cancer. This same protein is linked to wet macular degeneration. The company that makes Avastin, Genentech, has created a slightly different molecule and development process to make Lucentis, which is FDA approved to treat macular degeneration. For all intents and purposes, the drugs are the same. Both target VGEF. Both are effective for macular degeneration, according to several independent trials. However, Genentech has only sought FDA approval for Lucentis to treat MD. It does not produce Avastin in the proper size to treat MD.
Despite this, many ophthalmologists still use Avastin to treat MD. They have to have a compounding pharmacy separate it out into the proper dose, which does introduce a risk of contamination, though the risk is slight. However, using Avastin this way is certainly considered off-label, meaning using a medication in a way that is not FDA approved.
The newspaper clearly implies that doctors should use Avastin, and that there is no good reason not to. It implies that doctors who chose not to take the risk of using an unapproved drug are greedy, stating that the medicare reimbursement of 6% of the cost of the drug (a whopping $120) is driving their decision.
And yet, just a few months ago, The Washington Post published this article. It decries the lack of oversight of pharmaceutical drug use in the elderly, specifically targeting the off-label use of drugs in Alzheimer’s patients.
So, which is it, Washington Post? Am I a saint or a sinner? Is off-label use good or bad? Or maybe, just maybe, doctors are using their clinical judgment in individual situations to guide their decisions.
h/t to Overlawyered.com