ProPublica investigates ties between doc groups, industry

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

With an assist from Sen. Chuck Grassley, ProPublica senior reporters Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, AHCJ’s board president, have published their latest data-heavy investigation (USA Today version). This time, their journey into the myriad avenues pharmaceutical companies pursue to influence physicians has taken them into the world of professional societies and annual conferences. The duo writes that despite the power of these groups, their dependence upon millions and millions of dollars in industry funding has often slipped under the radar.

Professional groups … are a logical target for the makers of drugs and medical devices. They set national guidelines for patient treatments, lobby Congress about Medicare reimbursement issues, research funding and disease awareness, and are important sources of treatment information for the public.

Their strongest anecdote comes from the Heart Rhythm Society, a group which, in 2010, pulled in about $8 million – half their total income – directly from manufacturers of the drugs and devices their members specialize in prescribing for, or implanting in, patients. The society has started to disclose these relationships, but perhaps not to limit them, the reporters write. “’This is our business,’ said Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, the incoming society president. ‘We either get out of the business or we manage these relationships. That’s what we’ve chosen to do.’”

The companies also pay two-thirds of the society’s board members speaking or consulting fees, a situation Weber and Ornstein found is far from unusual. In addition to these financial conflicts, the reporters gathered some fascinating examples of just how deep industry influence can run. My personal favorite comes from the conference of a well-known collection of cardiologists.

Last month, the American College of Cardiology attached tracking devices to doctors’ conference ID badges. Many physicians were unaware that exhibitors had paid to receive real-time data about who visited their booths, including names, job titles and how much time they spent.

For more examples, I recommend Robert Durrell’s photographs from the 2011 Heart Rhythm Society annual conference, which show dozens of industry-sponsored objects alongside the amount of money each company paid for that particular privilege. Dan Nguyen and Nicolas Rapp put together an infographic that expands upon a similar theme.

Much of the disclosure data the ProPublica team depended on for their reports was released in response to a request for informationGrassley sent out in late 2009. His investigation has started to yield some preliminary results.

There are fledgling efforts to push medical societies toward stricter limits on industry funding: 34 groups have signed a voluntary code of conduct calling for public disclosure of funding and limits on how many people on guideline-writing panels have industry ties.

“The general feeling is that the societies need to be independent of the influence of companies,” said Dr. Norman B. Kahn Jr., chief executive of the Council of Medical Specialty Societies, which helped draft the code.

Leave a Reply