Data Mining and BC Pharmacare

The new road to resources in BC could be paved with your health information; data mining has become the new industry of the 21st century.

The Ministry of Health Pharmaceutical Services Division (PSD) oversees $1.2 billion annual spending on drugs which are covered under the BC Pharmacare program. One of the mandates of PSD is to carry out drug evaluations by looking at real world data on people who have used the drug to determine if it is as safe as the manufacturer claims.

In 2012, an evaluation group within PSD was studying the smoke cessation drug Champix, a drug which also carried warnings of risks of heart attacks and psychiatric effects such as depression. Champix, sold in the United States as Chantix, is made by Pfizer. In clinical trials performed by Pfizer before Champix was approved in Canada in 2007, researchers found the most common side effects included nausea and abnormal dreams. (In March 2013, Pfizer settled a class-action lawsuit in the United States regarding claims that the drug is the cause of suicide and suicide attempts. A similar class-action lawsuit has been filed in Canada).

End of the data analysts

What happened here in British Columbia in 2012? Instead of backing their own drug evaluation group, which consisted of economists, data analysts, academic researchers, and a PhD student, the government broke it apart. By the summer of 2012, all drug evaluation on Champix was halted. 9 people lost their jobs suddenly without any warning, including the PhD student, Rod MacIsaac, who was fired just three days before he was to finish his student co-op assignment and turn in his results.

Why was the Ministry of Health so determined to shut everyone up? Reports of wrongdoing and an impending police investigation (which never happened) conveniently muddled the picture. Just over three months later, MacIsaac was found dead in his Saanich home. Saanich police spokesman Sgt. Steve Eassie said detectives found no apparent foul play, but nor was there anything “that confirms it’s suicide.”

Independent drug reviews cancelled

Around the same time as the Ministry of Health terminated the PSD evaluation department, the government cut all funding to Therapeutics Initiative based at UBC. Therapeutics Initiative (TI), which had an international reputation for its meticulous and thorough drug reviews, was forced to cancel all drug safety evaluations they had been working on.

The provincial government had been planning on getting rid of Therapeutics Initiative, which had been seen by many as the last barrier to ‘Big Pharma’. The government’s  Pharmaceutical Task Force is comprised of a group with pharmaceutical industry ties. Its main conclusion? Dismantle the TI.

Selling your health data

Some people are speculating that the health and prescription drug use data of British Columbians is an economic opportunity that the government should not pass up. The provincial government set up the Data Stewardship Committee which is looking to ‘share’ BC’s health data for a profit. What do drug companies plan to do with the data they mine here in BC?