Medical experts call for a crackdown on drugmaker money

Millions of dollars in gifts, travel and consulting fees from the pharmaceutical industry should be eliminated to stop companies from influencing how doctors practise medicine, a report by the U.S. government’s top medical advisers says.

WASHINGTON — Millions of dollars in gifts, travel and consulting fees from the pharmaceutical industry should be eliminated to stop companies from influencing how doctors practise medicine, a report by the U.S. government’s top medical advisers says.

The sweeping recommendations from the Institute of Medicine call on medical professionals — from university professors to family doctors — to shun financial arrangements with companies that have flourished over the past three decades.

Taking free lunches from company salespeople, giving paid lectures on their behalf and other practices “erode public trust while providing no meaningful benefits to patients or society,” institute panel chair Dr. Bernard Lo said in a statement.

The report calls on medical schools, hospitals and physician groups to:

l publicly report funding they receive from companies.

l not accept free meals, gifts or other items from companies.

l prohibit doctors who have a financial conflicts of interest from testing new therapies on people.

The 353-page document arrives as lawmakers bolster efforts to require companies to publicly report the money they spend courting physicians. The report could give them more leverage in their push to untangle the knotty relationships between industry and physicians, which some say drive up the cost of medicine.

The American Medical Association and other groups have taken some steps in that direction, for instance, phasing out company-paid trips to luxury resorts. And Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania and other medical schools are disclosing more about faculty members’ conflicts of interest. But consumer advocates say more dramatic changes are needed.

“I think there may be some sparks that fly from this report, since many industry and medical groups had already been moving in this direction,” said Steven Findlay of Consumers Union. “But I think this will accelerate the movement towards full disclosure of these conflicts.”

The IOM advises the federal government on health care matters. While its recommendations are not binding, many executives and physicians are likely to heed the advice to avoid scrutiny from lawmakers.

In the last year, Sen. Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa), has uncovered more than a half-dozen questionable arrangements between leading researchers and drug companies. In one case, the chairman of Emory University’s psychiatric department was removed after failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from a company whose drugs he was studying. The head of Stanford University’s psychiatry department stepped down after similar payments came to light.

Grassley and Sen. Herb Kohl, (D-Wis.), are pushing a bill that would require companies to disclose all payments to physicians over US$100. But the IOM report goes even further, calling for the disclosure of payments to patient groups and other non-profits that are often funded by industry dollars.

While making payments public will not immediately stop the flow of money, panellists say it’s an important first step.

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