When I recently helped organise an international medical conference in Sydney, I realised just how much doctors’ attitudes towards the pharmaceutical industry had changed since the last one I organised, back in the 1970s.

When organising the first conference, we had little compunction in accepting sponsorship from “the ethical research-based pharmaceutical industry”. We appreciated the financial risks they took in searching for new medications, the enormous financial resources that went into the analysis of “new” compounds and the synthesis of effective chemical formulations of derived molecules to produce effective and safe medicines for the world’s woes.

We wanted to support them in these mammoth endeavours. We encouraged prescribing by brand name and decried the “me-too” generic substitutes, manufactured by cheapskate rival companies that did no research in advancing human knowledge and relieving human misery.

Three decades later, we righteously spurned sponsorship from deceitful, false, misleading, self-seeking, devious, profit-seeking, self-interested “Big Pharma”. Caesar’s wife had nothing on our purity of mind, intentions and actions. Studiously avoiding Big Pharma, we solicited support elsewhere and ran our highly successful conference within our financial means.

Attendance was as high as we expected, and from countries which could well, we hoped, benefit from the wisdom and experiences of our excellent Australian and international speakers. But, when the final financial figures were reckoned, and we were patting ourselves on our respective backs for our singular success in the absence of any support from Big Pharma, unlike almost all other international medical conferences of which we were aware, we made a sobering discovery.

Our financial success was, in fact, due in large measure to contributions from Big Pharma, who had, in this instance, been joined by Big Surgical Instrument Maker. Large contingents of delegates from two Asian countries had registered for the conference, their registration fees paid by the pharmaceutical and surgical instrument maker respectively. We had, of course, noticed these payments when they had come in, but, as there was no advertising to the conference of the products of either company, we did not feel compromised. If this was a way for large health-related corporations to support the education of those doctors, that was a benefit to their countries and not something to be judged by our western ethics.

Our collegial and professional delight at seeing these dozens of delegates presenting themselves at the registration desk at the beginning of the first day was totally negated when we realised that, having taken photographs of themselves in front of the conference banners, they disappeared to enjoy the many touristic joys of the city and, for all we know, of the neighbouring countryside or even of the rest of Australia.

None of these couple of dozen delegates was ever seen after that initial sighting at the registration desk.

It dawned on us that they had been the recipients of a gift of an Australian holiday, with our conference being the pretext, presumably for the doctors to claim that they had been attending to their education, and for the two companies concerned to claim their beneficence as a legitimate business expense.

It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, and raises some disquieting questions: How common is this behaviour? What do these companies expect, and receive, in exchange? Is this type of behaviour acceptable in their home countries? Are the same sorts of offerings being made to Australian doctors vis-a-vis trips overseas?