ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism outfit that has been digging for dirt on physician/pharma relationships since it started its “Dollars for Docs” series late last year, flung another shovelful this spring in the form of an article that excoriates a medical society for having the audacity to charge for booth space and sponsorship opportunities at its annual meeting. Specifically, the reporters focused on the Heart Rhythm Society’s annual meeting, whose take of more than $5 million in and sponsorship fees they found to be unseemly, if not downright dastardly. The article implies that these financial relationships with industry causes medical societies to influence docs to do whatever it is the pharma and device companies want, rather than what’s best for patients based on the best availablae evidence.
Do sponsorships and exhibitions really present an ethical problem? There is no evidence, at least none that I’m aware of, that selling booths and banners cause a society to throw its ethics out the window and peddle whatever its exhibitors and sponsors are selling. As Stephen Lewis points out in his column on the latest American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs report on CME—a totally different topic with a similar underlying theme (see page 18)—vilifying something with no evidence to back up claims that it has caused any harm seldom is good policy. Or good journalism. But I digress.
If somehow the assertion, albeit unbacked by any data, nonetheless turns out to be true, the problem is one that reaches far beyond medical societies. In fact, most trade and professional associations count booth sales and sponsorships as important currents in their revenue streams. In the 13th edition of Operating Ratio Report, published by the American Society of Association Executives in 2008, associations of all types said that roughly 28 percent of their annual revenues came from industry-related sources, including booths, sponsorships, nongovernmental contributions, and advertising. There wasn’t a line item for educational grants, which can be a significant number for medical societies.
So, assuming the traditional trade show/sponsorship model is causing all our associations to provide biased education, why do we only seem to care if it’s a healthcare-related organization? Do we not care about the improper influence their associations may have on our lawyers, police, accountants, airline pilots, government defense contractors, teachers, preachers, and parole officers due to the financial relationships involved? Or are only healthcare workers naïve enough to be swayed by the perception of bias such relationships supposedly entail?
While it’s easy to bash Big Pharma for pretty much anything these days, it seems to me that if it’s wrong for one group to do, it’s wrong for all. My question is, is it really wrong? I have yet to see evidence to prove it.
More of Sue's columns:
A Plague of Vague