An Australian investigation has revealed that drug companies are actually sponsoring medical seminars sold to doctors as independent educational sessions.
The report, by Ray Moynihan, honorary lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia, says that drug industry representatives have confirmed that parallel practices exist in the United Kingdom, where drug companies sponsor nearly half of all education for doctors.
It is not unusual for drug companies to suggest speakers and topics related to their products, Moynihan said.
In the report, he gives a detailed account of how leaked documents and emails from a variety of sources show drug company sponsors having input into the selection of some speakers at seminars held in recent years, regardless of the fact that these have been assertively sold to general practitioners in brochures claiming that "all content is independent of industry influence."
He adds that the drug industry's representative body Medicines Australia has established that the practice of inviting input from sponsors into the selection of speakers is by no means exceptional, while the view from the drug industry is that allowing sponsors to suggest speakers does not compromise the independence of medical education, as the educational providers have ultimate control over who speaks.
However, Moynihan said that the investigation in Australia reveals several examples where sponsors' suggestions were welcomed by the company providing supposedly independent education, reports the British Medical Journal.
Industry representatives in Australia and the UK strongly argue that, in the interests of transparency, doctors attending educational sessions should be fully and openly informed if sponsors have suggested speakers for these sessions.
Such an amount of disclosure could drastically change perceptions of the content of qualified education, says Moynihan, which many doctors believe to be independent of sponsor influence.
He adds that the evidence tentatively indicates that the prescribing habits of doctors may be affected by attending sponsored educational events, albeit only in the short term.
Moynihan concludes that the recent revelations from Australia, and confirmation from the industry itself that it is "not unusual" for sponsors to suggest speakers could possibly hone the lines of debate about how to achieve more independent education or at least greater transparency.
The report appears in the British Medical Journal.