Report decries drug makers' perks for MDs

Providers of care are urged to shun financial benefits

By Matthew Perrone
Associated Press / April 29, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Millions of dollars in gifts, travel, and consulting fees from the pharmaceutical industry should be eliminated to stop companies from influencing how doctors practice medicine, a report by the 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 sales people, giving paid lectures on their behalf, and other practices "erode public trust while providing no meaningful benefits to patients or society," said the institute panel's chairman, Dr. Bernard Lo.

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

Publicly report funding they receive from companies.

Refuse free meals, gifts, and other items from companies.

Prohibit doctors who have 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 on 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.

Consumer advocates, however, say that 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 toward full disclosure of these conflicts."

The Institute of Medicine advises the government on healthcare matters. While its recommendations are not binding, many executives and physicians are likely to heed the advice to avoid further scrutiny.

In the past year, Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has uncovered more than six questionable arrangements between leading researchers and drug companies.

Grassley and Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, are pushing a bill that would require companies to disclose all payments to physicians over $100. But the institute's report goes further, calling for the disclosure of payments to patient groups and other nonprofits that are often funded by industry dollars.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group, is trying to head off regulation by reining in marketing efforts.

Its executive vice president, Diane Bieri, cautioned there could be unintended consequences of adopting the institute's recommendations.