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Drug companies pay doctors, nurses $9.5 million in six months for advice, event attendance

The giants of the global pharmaceutical industry have continued paying doctors and nurses for their advice and to attend events, shelling out at least $9.5 million in six months for such services last year.

The latest tranche of data on drug company payments made to doctors, nurses and other 'health professionals' including academics, was released publicly earlier this week.

It shows some 35 major drug manufacturers made more than 7700 individual payments to thousands of health professionals in the six months from April to October last year. 

Those payments were variously provided for speaker's fees at conferences and travel and hospitality costs to attend "educational events", as well as payments made for their services as consultants to the industry and to sit on "advisory boards".

While most payments were made directly to doctors and nurses, some were also made out to "third parties" - most often a research or medical institution that individual was associated with.

Previous data releases have shown the industry had spent more than $64 million in 12 months across direct payments to doctors, funding events and sponsoring other groups.

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The data was released as part of a transparency program undertaken by drug industry lobby group Medicines Australia, but that program is not yet mandatory, so several hundred doctors refused to allow the public release of their names and details of payments made to them.

Companies that paid the greatest amounts to health practitioners in the six months to October last year included Pfizer, AbbVie, AstraZeneca, BMS, Celgene, GSK, MerckSerono, Novartis and Roche.

While the data does attribute about $2.9 million in payments to specific individuals, as the transparency reports are voluntary, some 2600 'health professionals, who received about $6.6 million in payments overall, were not named in the reports.

A statement from Medicines Australia about the data said the association hopes that "consumers will be able to better understand the critical interactions that their medical professional and other healthcare professionals have with the innovative medicines industry".

While payments for registration fees and travel and accommodation are not limited, there is a $120 cap per event on providing food and beverage to health professionals.

"The innovative pharmaceutical industry relies on the advice of independent healthcare professionals to help deliver effective new life-changing treatments to Australians," the statement reads.

University of Sydney Chair of Medical Use and Health Outcomes at the Charles Perkins Centre, Professor Lisa Bero, said the data released in Australia by the companies was scant compared to similar data releases in the United States.

While the Australian data had only three categories of payment - registration fees for events, travel and accommodation and fees for service and consultancy - Prof Bero said the US data release included several more categories, including honoraria, entertainment, investments and grants provided to the recipients.

"While it's hard to draw key conclusions from the data, if the frequency of the transaction continues over a longer period (as more data is released), we'll be able to see if there's a consistent and steady relationship between the companies and practitioners.

"It would be interesting to see over time, if those are the same people."

Prof Bero said in the US, there was also a government database that provided information about grants and research provided to "chief investigators", which was "one of the largest sources of financial ties".

"But that's totally missing here, so I don't think it really tells us the full extent of industry ties for specific individuals," she said.

She said there was also a growing body of evidence showing that even small amounts of industry funding could influence the prescribing decisions of medical practitioners.