Big Pharma cash flooding US medical boardrooms, industry-wide study finds

By Mason Quah

MEDICAL industry heads are receiving vast sums in corporate hospitality prompting concerns over a conflict of interest, a new study has revealed.

The research, recently published in the British Medical Journal, logged payments to the boards of top medical organisations across numerous fields, from cancer treatment to psychiatry.

Speaking fees, hospitalities and royalties accrued by the 328 leaders and board members totalled $130 million, according to the cross-sectional study, led by Dr Ray Moynihan.

Moynihan’s probe also claims to have identified a conflict of interest in 80 per cent of the cases where such payments were paid.

However not all medical associations can be painted with the same brush.

Psychiatrists seem much less affected, with their median disclosed payment of $212. This can perhaps be credited to deliberate purges of such influences.

It was a 2008 case of undisclosed industry payments that was influential in bringing about the 2010 Sunshine act requiring healthcare providers to disclose such payments.

Either the psychiatrists have gotten better at hiding money, or they have made an effective attempt at stamping out vested interests within their organisation.

Other fields of medicine have shown no improvement under the sunshine act, as the increased transparency lays bare the problem without addressing it directly.

The same statistic for the American Society of Clinical Oncology reveals a median payment of $518,000.

There are many ways for pharmaceutical money to infiltrate medical practice that are distinct from outright bribery.

Research sponsored by corporate interests has been proven to create more amenable results to those interests, and there is scant attention given to reproducing and confirming the results of such research once published.

Training funded by pharmaceutical interests has the dual purpose of encouraging doctors to recommend specific brand products and encourages the overdiagnosis of illnesses related to them.

Overdiagnosis in the US is a major contributor to the 20 per cent of US healthcare spending wasted on ineffectual treatments, and a further 20 per cent is deemed to be spent non-optimally.

The opioid crisis, while most often framed around illegal heroin and synthetic drugs, is severely worsened by a prevalence of prescription opioids.

Studies are conflicted as to the proportion of heroin users that began with prescription medicine but agree that it makes up a significant number.

With healthcare and the opioid crisis constituting major concerns to the American populace finding solutions at the clinical end should be attractive to both parties.

US medical costs are higher per person than any equivalent sized economy.

2017 CDC statistics show that 17.9 per cent of the nation’s GDP was directed towards healthcare. The nationalisation of healthcare vs the provision of a public option is a major wedge issue that has split the democratic party.

In order to truly provide affordable healthcare to the American people, it is clear that not only the patient-facing side of care needs to be amended.

The Sunshine act provided much-needed transparency into how physicians are influenced by industry money but the time has come to stop simply collecting data and to start acting upon it.

The full study cited in this article, part of a themed collection on financial interests, transparency and independence, can be found here.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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