While last week’s front pages featured soldiers playing with Aboriginal kids, the Federal Court handed down an amazing decision that didn’t get the attention it deserved. From now on, drug companies will have to disclose the details of all their wining and dining of doctors. This world class reform puts Australia at the leading edge of transparency in health care, but it lacks one crucial element: we still will not know the names of the doctors who attend these drug company events.
Some of the states in the US are now requiring doctors to reveal the extent of their financial interactions with drug companies, but according to a recent study the new laws are not working well. In the normally progressive north-east state of Vermont, most of the drug company gifts to doctors were still not being disclosed, and the disclosure documents in most cases made it impossible to identify the individual doctors who received the gifts.
The same problem could well happen here in Australia. What look like tough new disclosure rules may turn out to be weaker than we think. It is great news that drug companies will now have to name the restaurant or resort where the “educational” event is taking place, the numbers of doctors attending, and the total cost of the food and wine provided. But they won’t have to provide a list of the doctors’ names, and that means patients and the public will still be in the dark about exactly who’s got their stethoscope in the trough.
Anyone who says this wining and dining is a thing of the past is dreaming. There are estimates of more than 8,000 such events each year, where doctors often tuck into the best food and wine drug money can buy. A particularly celebrated event took place at the Sydney Opera House’s Guillaume at Bennelong a couple of years ago, when the Swiss company Roche bought hundreds of doctors a meal at roughly $200-a-head. The bill was more than $65,000. I know because a whistle-blower sent me the receipt.
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The Federal Court last week rightly argued that drug company influence can distort prescribing practice. If that’s true, it is surely every patient’s right to know what sort of influence their doctor is exposed to, and whether or not they are enjoying a degustation at the Opera House.