I don’t really walk around with antennae out trying to detect pharmaceutical company influence on physicians, despite this being my second blog post on the topic in the past month. (See the earlier one here.) But I couldn’t help thinking about it when I arrived at the American Diabetes Association 2011 scientific meeting and found that the registration packet included a 40-page booklet produced by the ADA but focused on “Corporate Events.”
Most large medical conferences will have satellite symposia driven by drug companies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them given the same packaging treatment as the scientific sessions.
Why does this bother me? Well, the day after I returned from that meeting, the media widely reported on a study and several papers in The Spine Journal questioning the validity of years of industry-sponsored research that had led doctors to believe that a bone growth protein often used in spinal fusion surgeries was safe. The review led by Stanford University researchers concluded that bone morphogenetic protein may cause a variety of complications, even permanent or potentially fatal ones, at rates 10-50 times higher than reported. After the news coverage, the authors called out what they considered deceptive back-pedaling by the companies and a doctor who profited from it all.
Granted, that’s not the diabetes world, but having such an apparently cozy relationship between industry and the ADA probably isn’t a good thing in the end. Except that I imagine it might have helped pay for the truly delicious, healthy food they fed us in the press room.
On the other hand, there are signs of potential progress in disclosing drug company influence on the practice of medicine. Nearly all medical conferences I cover now religiously require speakers to list disclosures of conflicts of interest and make these accessible in printed form for all conference attendees. That’s a big improvement over the days when I’d have to request the information and spend a couple of hours flipping through the single three-ring binder containing disclosures.
And back at the American Diabetes Association meeting, I saw something else unusual that I had seen only once before, at the 2011 American Psychiatric Association meeting. In the Exhibit Hall, one of the pharmaceutical giants was giving away free fruit smoothies — nothing unusual in that. But the smoothie stand featured a sign saying the following:
“The cost of any refreshments, meals or educational items provided to U.S. licensed Healthcare Professionals attending this [company] Exhibit will be subject to public disclosure on [the company's Website] as part of [the company's] Healthcare Professional Disclosure policies, and may also be subject to disclosure by state governmental authorities pursuant to your state law. In order to comply with these requirements, please make your badge available to be scanned by an attendant as requested.
“If you hold a Healthcare Professional license in Minnesota, we are prohibited from providing you any refreshments or items of value due to your state limitations and ask that you do not partake in the hospitality provided.”
No need to feel sorry for Minnesota physicians, though. No such signs tried to dissuade them from filling up on coffee and lattes from numerous other company booths in the Exhibit Hall. Apparently smoothies may cross a “hospitality” threshold for disclosure that java does not.
–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)