Drug company funded events for health professionals: the state of play in Australia

Cardiologist Jeffrey F Caren, who has a monument of over 1,200 pens gifted to him by drug companies
Cardiologist Jeffrey F Caren, who has a monument of over 1,200 pens gifted to him by drug companies

The links between the pharmaceutical industry and doctors are many and tangled. Drug companies are keen to schmooze doctors and, directly or not, persuade clinicians to prescribe their drug instead of a similar one by a competitor. One way that drug companies try to influence doctors is by sponsoring events, such as conferences or lectures.

Despite legislation, the exact extent to which the pharmaceutical industry sways doctors via this approach is not really known. To try to unravel exactly how much is being spent on sponsoring events for doctors, Robertson and colleagues investigated pharmaceutical industry funding of events in Australia, which has laws stating that details of every sponsored “do”, including the costs of any hospitality, are posted on the Medicines Australia website.

The authors found that during a six month period, the drug industry spent AUD$1 million (about £555,000 or US$900,000) a week in Australia on sponsored “educational events” for health professionals. This equates to about 600 sponsored events a week and an average annual spending of around AUD$1,000 (£555 or US$930) on each doctor.

More than a third (35%) of events were held in plush spots like restaurants, hotels or function centres, which increased the spend on the event by five-fold compared with if the event was held in a hospital (AUD$71.35 vs AUD$12.11).

Bristol-Myers Squibb was the most generous company, with an average spend per head of AUD$95.26 (£53 or US$88), although Astra Zeneca held the most events (1,310 0ver six months).

Professionals specialising in psychology or oncology were the most likely to attend sponsored events, although the biggest spend was on endocrinologists, oncologists and cardiologists.  Tellingly, specialists in these particular disciplines tend to prescribe the highest cost drugs.

Companies had some control over what was discussed at the event in 91% of cases. Where provided, topic descriptions often matched the products made by the sponsor, although there were few mentions of specific drug names.

Evidence suggests that attending a drug company sponsored event can indeed change the prescribing practices of a doctor, making the figures in this report quite disturbing.  For example, judging by the numbers in this study, as many as 13,000 Australian doctors could be under the thumb of the pharmaceutical industry.  As the authors point out, “from a company perspective, it is cheap and easy to sponsor meetings in hospitals and health centres, and the return on this ‘investment’ is likely to be high.”

In the UK, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry code of conduct states that pharmaceutical companies sponsoring meetings and seminars can only provide “subsistence” for events and can only offer economy air travel to delegates sponsored to attend meetings. The code also states that lavish venues must not be used and that the costs covered “must not exceed the level which the recipients would normally adopt when paying for themselves”.

In the US, several states have mandatory disclosure laws for physician payments so that it is a bit clearer to everybody who is cosying up with drug companies and who isn’t, but these data aren’t foolproof.  For example, laws on physician reporting of industry gifts in Vermont and Minnesota exempt payments of less than US$100.

It’s worth mentioning that the system in Australia is actually more transparent than that in either the UK or the US, given that since mid-2007, there has been mandatory reporting of details of every industry-sponsored event in Oz.  On that note, the situation is probably worse in the northern hemisphere, as noted by an article last year in British newspaper The Guardian.

And although there is legislation in place these days, as the authors point out, “lavish gifts and generous travel support … have been progressively discouraged by industry and professional guidelines. It is likely that the frequent, more modest, sponsored educational events will become increasingly important and influential, and the principal form of contact between industry and health professionals.”

This research clearly outlines how endemic industry courting of doctors really is.

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Robertson J, Moynihan R, Walkom E, Bero L, & Henry D. (2009) Mandatory Disclosure of Pharmaceutical Industry-Funded Events for Health Professionals. PLoS Medicine 6 (11). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1000128

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