According to ProPublica—though transparency has seemingly increased between pharma and physicians since the Christmastime release of its Dollars for Docs report—medical societies and organizations are still having a holiday with industry money.
Three days before Christmas last year, independent news organization ProPublica released its own “naughty and nice” list in the form of its Dollars for Docs report, which compiled disclosure lists from eight pharma companies, shedding light on payments given to physicians for promoting certain branded medication. The report ignited a bit of hoopla among industry and the public.
Since then, the Sunshine Act (an arm of the Affordable Care Act) has been chugging along toward its goals of improving transparency and limiting “gifts” to physicians, with the Department of Health and Human Services charged with implementing regulations by October 2011 to clarify which companies will have to report what specific information, and to whom.
However, a new ProPublica report by Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, co-published with USA Today, makes the claim that pharma payoffs don’t end with docs.
According to the report, medical societies that represent groups of experts, such as the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS). allow (and encourage) drug and medical device manufacturers to promote their products to members at conferences and similar meetings and opportunities—for a fee. HRS is one of many “professional associations and groups that promote disease awareness and research,” says the report, and many such organizations allow sponsors—the drug and medical device companies who help pay for their events—to pitch and promote to members.
ProPublica bristled at the advertisement smorgasbord evident at the recent HRS conference full of cardiologists in San Francisco. Ads “adorn every hotel key card … are splashed on busses, banners, and the stairs underfoot. Logos splay across shuttle bus headrests, carpets, and cellphone-charging stations,” says the report. According to ProPublica, HRS “sold access to its members and their purchasing power,” accepting money from pharma and med tech companies in exchange for the power to promote to such an ideal target audience.
But for the HRS and similar research, patient advocate, and non-profit organizations, allowing sponsors to promote products is just a way of doing business—perhaps even the way they stay afloat. “Officials of the Heart Rhythm Society say industry money does not buy influence and is essential to developing new treatments,” recounts the report. Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, incoming HRS president, told ProPublica, “This is our business. We either get out of the business or we manage these relationships. That’s what we’ve chosen to do.”
Call it shameless promotion or kickbacks or a necessary part of sponsor-organization relations—whatever you call it, ProPublica will continue to make sure that the financial relationship between pharma and other healthcare industry players is fully transparent to all stakeholders—including the public.