Doctors have accused the BBC of bowing to pharmaceutical industry propaganda after a storyline in an episode of the hospital drama series Holby City featured an expensive drug that is widely regarded as "ineffective and unsafe".
Mark Thompson, BBC director general, has been asked to explain why the drug was included in the soap, contrary to compelling scientific evidence.
The episode, "Big Lies, Small Lies", featured a female soldier who has been treated with an anti-bleeding drug after being shot. She develops a blood clot, but after recovering from the life-threatening side effect, explains that she will not sue the drug company because the medicine saved her life.
Trauma surgeons say that the drug used, Factor VIIa, is widely promoted by the drug company but has no proven record of saving lives in trauma injuries. This is in contrast to another drug, tranexamic acid (TXA), which has been shown to stem bleeding from gun shots and knife wounds and has few side effects. A large clinical trial last year found that treating every NHS trauma patient with TXA would save 400 lives annually.
Advertising regulation were loosened earlier this year to allow product placements on commercial television, but profiting from placing medical products is still forbidden.
Dr Ian Roberts, head of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre on Injury Control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the storyline was pure "drug company propaganda". "There are two drugs used to treat bleeding in trauma. One works, is safe and never gets mentioned because it is generic and cheap," he said. "The other doesn't work, is dangerous, but gets talked about all the time because it makes the company lots of money. Mark Thompson needs to explain the decision because using Factor VIIa costs lives."
Hospital dramas routinely consult doctors to make certain that medical scenes are realistic and accurate. Two surgeons and an anaesthetist are named on the episode credits; none responded to questions from The Independent.
A spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, which makes Factor VIIa, said: "We have not provided or been approached by any member of staff of the programme Holby City regarding any of our treatments."
The company said it does not advocate the drug being used for unlicensed conditions. In Europe it is approved to treat bleeding in some haemophilia patients. In June, the US division of the Danish company agreed to pay $25m to settle an investigation and civil lawsuit related to alleged improper marketing practices, but denied any wrongdoing.
A Holby City spokesperson denied that the drug had been given undue prominence and said the storyline was written in conjunction with medical advisers and the Ministry of Defence.