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Drugmakers Favor Companies for Medical Education Grants

Drug and device makers give more money to companies that provide doctor education than to other organizations, according to a study that suggests the groups should be evaluated for undue industry influence.

Companies such as WebMD Health Corp.’s Medscape and the closely held Postgraduate Institute for Medicine based in Englewood, Colorado, received $170 million split among 2,077 grants from the drug and device makers in 2010 to provide continuing medical education. The report was released yesterday by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Medical communication companies’ reliance on industry funding shows the importance of keeping education separate from promotional endeavors, wrote Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin from the Center for Medicine and the Media at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice, in an editorial that accompanies the report. Companies feel pressure to present their clients’ products positively, they said.

“The pharmaceutical industry is invested in the continuing education of physicians and nonphysician prescribers alike,” they wrote. “Closing loopholes that allow medical communication companies to bypass some of these policies would be an important additional step in ensuring that marketing is not confused with education.”

The money and information was provided by 13 pharmaceutical companies, led by Roche Holding AG and its Genentech unit, Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., and the device company, Medtronic Inc.

Report Disputed

Andrew Rosenberg, a senior adviser at the CME Coalition, which represents continuing medical education provider companies, questioned the report and the accompanying editorial. The work includes inaccurate and unfounded allegations about tainting continuing medical education efforts and a supposed misuse of physician data they collect, Rosenberg said in a statement.

The researchers failed to distinguish between medical education companies and medical communication companies that don’t provide continuing medical education, they ignored the statements of the CME companies that they don’t sell personal data and the report counts charitable contributions as education payments, he said.

As legal settlements and legislation require more disclosure, drug and device makers have become more forthright about their financial ties to doctors and other groups in the health-care industry. GlaxoSmithKline Plc announced yesterday it would stop paying doctors for giving speeches and attending medical meetings by 2016.

Grant Total

The researchers analyzed a database of information on $657 million in grants given to 6,493 recipients in 2010. Most of the registry grants were for educational activities.

The study didn’t delve deeper into the relationships among the grantees and the industry, the researchers said. In addition to running education programs that doctors are required to take to stay current on medical advances, the communications companies can also help with advertising and publications for the industry.

“To ensure that any medical education programming we financially support is independent, avoids any perception of bias, and results in AMA continuing education credits for participating physicians, we do not control the design, planning, content of implementation of these programs in any way,” Krysta Pellegrino, a spokeswoman for Roche’s South San Francisco, California-based Genentech unit, said in an e-mail.

Top Earners

Medical communication companies received more money from industry than any other organizations, including academic medical centers and advocacy groups.

The top three firms getting support, led by $20.3 million to WebMD’s Medscape, are for-profit companies, the study found. Academic medical centers and universities were awarded the most grants, 5,427, with the second-highest dollar value at $140.9 million. Disease-targeted advocacy groups got $95.8 million, while research organizations received $22 million, or 3 percent of the funds.

The report also raised concerns that communication companies may misuse the information gathered from doctors who enroll in courses. The course require doctors to enter personal information, which then may be shared or sold to third parties, sometimes without a physician’s explicit knowledge, the researchers said.

More Disclosure

“This shows the willingness of drug companies to be much more transparent about the grants they are giving, not just to physicians but other health-care stakeholders,” said Sheila Rothman, a professor of public health at Columbia University in New York, and the lead researcher. “This is a big step, but we need more disclosure. They have to begin talking about what they do with the data.”

The report’s analysis of the continuing medical education programs found the online course required doctors to provide information such as their name, contact information, specialty and perhaps license number.

While some medical education companies disclosed that they tracked the doctor’s activities on the Internet, the information wasn’t easily available, Rothman said. Ten of the 18 companies said they shared the information with third parties, while others said the information could be provided to “educational partners” or others.

Medscape’s continuing medical education programs are kept separate from other businesses within the company, said Adam Grossberg, a company spokesman. The programs aren’t influenced by sponsors or commercial interests, and all information about attendees remains confidential, he said.

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