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One doctor group beats all in raking in Big Pharma cash to fund events

Doctor groups have long been warned against accepting drug company sponsorship in case they are influenced, but a Fairfax Media analysis has found one particular organisation is aggressively seeking financial support, collecting close to $1 million in six months.

The Haematology Society of Australia and New Zealand (HSANZ) and its sub-groups received $972,000 in 50 separate payments from 17 pharmaceutical companies, including Roche, Amgen and Novartis, between May and October last year.

To put that into perspective, the second biggest total amount accepted by an organisation – the Australian Rheumatology Association – was about half that, at $538,000.

Dr William Stevenson, HSANZ’s new president, said they “retained independent control” of all educational content at its “non-biased” forums.

He said HSANZ approached a wide range of sources, including the university sector, pathology companies and patient families, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, for funding.

But Dr Ray Moynihan, an over-diagnosis expert at Bond University, said drug company sponsorship potentially created a “terrible distorting bias in medicine”.

“The danger in this for patients is the harms of medicines are played down and the benefits of medicines are exaggerated,” he said.

The latest sponsorship disclosures from peak body Medicines Australia shows between May and October last year 33 companies lavished $16.1 million on medical organisations to help them run 1900 educational workshops, meetings and conferences.

AstraZeneca, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim and MSD led the charge, each splurging more than $1 million on doctor groups.

Scandal-ridden AstraZeneca made the biggest single payment, giving Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute $334,945.44 to help it host the National Diabetes Forum at Sofitel Melbourne, which had 170 attendees.

In terms of the number of events, Johnson & Johnson-owned Janssen poured money into 247 educational events, followed by Sanofi, with 121 events, and Seqirus, with 113 events.

The data suggests HSANZ proactively sought financial support from most pharmaceutical companies for a range of events, from $625 for a “WA Branch Monthly Clinical Meeting” to $138,500 for its Annual Scientific Meeting at the Sydney International Convention Centre.

Dr Moynihan said organisations that accepted drug company money became part of that company’s marketing strategy and potentially could undermine public and patient trust in doctors.

“These sponsorships are mutually beneficial – the company invests these marketing dollars and the doctor groups can put on big events in flash locations,” he said. “But HSANZ is trading their credibility and independence.”

Dr Moynihan urged organisations to reduce event costs by choosing different venues and asking members to pitch in.

In response, Dr Stevenson said:”Registration costs are markedly subsidised for trainees, scientists and nurses … we provide free exhibition space for other charities and not-for-profit organisations … we also fund educational grants for trainee haematologists and scientists.”

“We are constantly exploring other sources of potential funding, but reduced donations would decrease the amount we can provide for our educational activities.”

A Baker Institute spokeswoman explained AstraZeneca gave them an “unrestricted educational grant” to host the National Diabetes Forum.

Asked whether AstraZeneca had any influence on the decision to invite Professor Naveed Sattar, who has accepted AstraZeneca funding in the past, to be the international guest speaker, the institute said no and pointed to his achievements.

“Given the soaring rates of diabetes in Australia, it is imperative that health professionals are armed with the latest knowledge in order to make inroads when it comes to enhancing prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diabetes,” she said.

“To do this, we regularly work with academia, industry, government and other groups.

“AstraZeneca follows the key principle that a third party organising the educational meeting should independently determine the educational content, select the speakers and invite the attendees,” a spokesman said.

Medicine Australia said: “By supporting ongoing and independent education, companies can assist healthcare professionals through their associations to acquire the appropriate understanding and impartial knowledge of the management of medical conditions, including the place of new innovative therapies, which is appropriate and accountable.”

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