Taking on Big Pharma

Where Corporate Excess Meets Medical Ethics

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Taking On Big Pharma

By Gerald S. Cohen

IT'S 9 A.M. AT CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL IN SEATTLE, time for medical rounds. A gaggle of young medical interns and residents moves quickly down the halls, accompanied by a senior resident and the attending physician—the staff physician who ultimately is responsible for the patient’s care.

Outside one room, a bleary-eyed intern nearing her 30th hour on call describes her patient’s condition. The mother of the patient stands nearby with her arms folded across her chest. She’s visibly upset and trying to follow the conversation through a Russian interpreter. But in any language, the words—mostly acronyms and references to mysterious procedures—are impossible to understand. She asks a few questions. “How long will she be here? I need to know your plans for later, down the road.” The responses do not satisfy her. In exasperation, she challenges the intern. The intern responds carefully, but with obvious discomfort as the attending physician watches but says little.

At another stop, the students are met by a mother and father who have spent the night in a hospital room outfitted with a sofa bed. Their infant’s fever has spiked at 105, and she’s experiencing seizures. The attending tries to be reassuring. “When should I be worried?” the mother asks. “If he’s struggling, if he has trouble eating,” the attending answers. “We’ll watch him through the morning.”

The rounds continue like this for another two hours. Thanks to ER, House and a host of other television hospital dramas, the scenes feel familiar, even banal. And yet the whole thing is a bit unsettling. It’s easy to forget that these young doctors are often talking about life and death. This is, after all, terribly serious business.

Branden Pfefferkorn ’02 is one of these young doctors. He has four years of medical school under his belt, has earned a master’s degree in public health and is now in his first year of a three-year residency in family medicine. He owes $200,000 in student debt for his undergraduate and graduate school education, and he is just now beginning to taste the fruits of deferred gratification.

Pfefferkorn understands the importance of his work, and he gets that he’s now considered a member of the privileged class. People treat him differently; they know he has the power to heal. Yet he has more than an inkling that there’s something wrong with health care in the United States, how it is administered, its costs and, yes, how young doctors are educated.

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