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Drug companies paying doctors millions for 'educational' events, consultancies

Drug companies have paid Australian doctors and nurses more than $64 million since April 2015 to attend "educational events", advisory group meetings and to act as consultants to the industry.

Thousands of doctors and nurses shared in about $8.5 million in payments from 35 drug companies between October 2015 and April this year, new data from Medicines Australia has revealed.

The $8.5 million for the six months to April this year comes on top of about $56 million the companies paid health professionals between April 2015 and October 2015, including travel and accommodation and hospitality to attend events, speaking and consultancy fees.

About $5.4 million of the latest reported data was spent on mostly domestic and some overseas flights, travel and accommodation and $2.6 million for "fees for service", including consultancy, speaking and advisory work.

More than 140 ACT doctors and nurses shared in almost $150,000 in such payments or financial support to attend such events.

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The drug companies paid New South Wales doctors and nurses more than $2.5 million and Victorian health professionals shared in about $2.1 million between October 2015 and April this year, the data shows.

Some of the biggest spending drug companies included BMS, Novartis, Amgen, Pfizer, Roche and AstraZeneca.

While most payments were between $500 and $5000 – including travel, accommodation, registration fees and the "fee for service" – some individual doctors received more than $30,000 from a range of companies.

The data was released as part of new transparency measures in Medicines Australia's latest Code of Conduct and is the first time individual payments, health professionals' names and locations have been reported in addition to overall figures.

While only two-thirds of all doctors who received payments gave permission to have the details made public, the new transparency measure will become mandatory from October this year.

Payments recorded on Medicines Australia's records show that combined, all drug company members paid "health care professionals" about $64 million – both in direct payments and support for travel and accommodation – over the 12 months to April this year.

The measures were adopted after talks with the Australian Medical Association and other health groups and the ACCC of the new code earlier this year.

Australian Medical Association president Dr Michael Gannon said he thought the new reports had "got it about right" in providing more transparency around the payments drug companies provide to doctors.

"Its absolutely essential that if individual doctors representing hospitals or health networks are involved in signing contracts to buy new medicines, that the payments they receive are transparent," he said.

"The truth is that these are companies that develop new medications at great expense and part of the way to get information out is to provide education programs, and they might involve modest hospitality."

Dr Gannon said there was "no question" that historically the drug companies had used "marketing techniques", but the AMA was happy with the new provisions.

Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Michael Moore said the new transparency was the "single most important thing" to arise in relation to the payments in recent years, and it would allow people to make "their own judgments as to what is appropriate and what is not".

While Mr Moore said he personally thought "direct payments" to health staff to attend events was "not appropriate", funding to third parties – like the association – to host events allowed doctors to be educated on new products without the concern they were being directly paid to attend.

Consumers Health Forum chief executive Leanne Wells said despite resistance from "some quarters" to the changes, the move was a welcome step.

"While many doctors have argued they are not swayed by drug company perks, research shows otherwise," she said.

"A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found that doctors who receive a single inexpensive meal from a drug company tend to prescribe a lot more of that company's products."

Ms Wells said the forum wanted to see annual limits on the value of meals drug companies bought for individual doctors.

A Medicines Australia spokesman said in a statement the latest reports provided "clear information about payments for a doctor sharing their expertise and knowledge with pharmaceutical companies or leading medical education for other healthcare professionals".

"Ongoing education helps healthcare professionals to acquire the appropriate understanding and knowledge of these therapies," the statement said.