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Time to bring pharma-physician relationships out of the dark ages?

January 7, 2009
by kate
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Transparency is always a hot topic, and with the economy in poor shape, it could become even hotter.

As organizational
budgets are put under a larger microscope, one area that could really come into focus is the relationship between physicians and pharmaceutical companies. It’s one of those issues that everyone is aware of but isn’t quite sure whether — or even how — to address it. Kind of like the way the Yankees can spend a half billion dollars during a recession.

Penn Medicine, however, is a step ahead of the game. Last month, the $3.5 billion enterprise that owns University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the three-hospital, 1,527-bed University of Pennsylvania Health System announced plans to launch a Web site that will provide information about physicians’ financial ties to pharmaceutical and medical device companies. According to an article published in the Philly Inquirer, the move is part of “an emerging trend in response to growing concerns about medical conflicts of interest.”

The organization already had a conflict of interest policy in place banning staff from accepting gifts, meals, and free samples from pharmaceutical companies. But now, it is using IT to bring the issue to light — even further.

Cleveland Clinic is also leveraging technology to address the growing problem. Last month, it also began posting disclosures of physicians’ and researchers’ business relationships and financial ties on its Web site.

While it’s an important first step that individual organizations are taking it upon themselves to deal with potential conflicts of interest, many feel that state or even federal government should step in; that in order to tackle big pharma, help is needed from big government. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) are pushing legislation requiring that data on industry payments to physicians of more than $500 be made available in a public national database. And in Vermont, lawmakers are calling for an online database providing residents with information about physician-pharmaceutical industry relationships. It’s designed to be an upgrade of the current system in which the Attorney General’s Office releases a report that some say isn’t user-friendly.

The proposed changes, however, also include eliminating a trade-secret exemption that lets the pharmaceutical industry conceal the amounts of money contributed and the identity of the doctors. While this plan has the support of the Vermont Medical Society and the Vermont Psychiatric Association, it is, not surprisingly, strongly opposed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which plans to fight efforts to remove the trade secrets clause, according to the Barre Montpelier Times Argus.

What I wonder is, does big pharma have a leg to stand on here? I understand the right to privacy, but if a patient’s doctor has a relationship with Pfizer that could possibly influence his/her decision when prescribing a medication, doesn’t the patient have the right to know? What’s more important, privacy or what’s best for the patient? Seems like a theme we’ve heard before.

What are your thoughts on this issue? What do you see happening in the near future?

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