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Drug, Medical Device Makers Agree to Disclose CME Funding

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Senator Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa) has apparently been successful in his bid to get medical device makers and drug companies to diclose their funding of medical education programs and outside groups. In a February letter to 15 manufacturers, Grassly had asked if the companies planned to start publishing grant information on their websites, in the way Eli Lilly began last year. Now the answers are in, with many drug and medical device makers agreeing to do just that.

While Grassley, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was pleased with the response, some patient advocates are more cynical. Dr. Peter Lurie of the consumer group Public Citizen told the Associated Press that drug and device makers’ voluntary disclosure efforts could be little more than an effort to ward off legislation that would require more comprehensive disclosure. “If they were doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they would have done so decades ago,” Lurie said.

Medtronic Inc. is to begin listing its funding efforts on its website on May 1, and AstraZeneca has plans to start posting its funding efforts to its website by August 1.  Merck, Amgen and Abbot Labs all said they are working on developing plans to disclose funding programs. Only Schering-Plough rebuffed Senator Grassley, saying “We do not publish or have plans at the moment to publish a list of charitable contributions or educational grants that medical organizations have received from us.”

Most of the drug and device makers that have agreed to disclosure will publish information on educational funding, and many will also publicize payments to patient advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association.In his February letter, Grassley said he was particularly interested in grants the companies used to fund Continuing Medical Education (CME) programs for physicians. Physicians must attend CME conferences in order to keep their licenses, and many drug and medical device makers “generously” fund such events. In fact, in 2006, pharmaceutical companies alone spent over $1 billion on CME courses. Unfortunately many of these courses are thinly disguised marketing ploys. Last summer, a Finance Committee found that drug companies were actually using CMEs to influence clinical practice guidelines and Medicaid formularies.

The Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) has rules spelling out who is allowed to pay for CME courses, and drug companies and device makers are not allowed to directly fund such programs. But “directly” is the operative word here. There is nothing in the rules that prohibits the manufacturers from paying a third party to design and promote courses. And that’s exactly what they do. Very often, the course materials designed by consultants for these programs exaggerate the benefits of the sponsoring company’s products, and downplay side effects and other safety issues. And it is not unusual for these conferences to include information on off-label uses of drugs and devices, something which manufacturers are legally barred from doing directly.

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