A long time drug industry insider in the United States says leading specialists can earn up to $5000 a day, for “educating” their peers on behalf of Big Pharma.

The practise, where drug companies pay so-called “Key Opinion Leaders” to speak at industry sponsored educational events is widespread around the world.

In Australia, the industry recently revealed that drug companies funded more than 14,000 “educational” events for doctors in just six months, at a cost of more than $1 million a week, many of them taking place in restaurants, hotels and resorts.

Many of these events feature an esteemed expert, usually a specialist, referred to with the rather Orwellian term of “Key Opinion Leader”. Often on the drug company payroll as consultants, these leading specialists firmly maintain they can take the cash and remain independent. But according to Kimberly Elliott, the long time industry insider, these doctors are considered to be part of the drug companies marketing strategy.

Elliott joined the pharmaceutical industry as a young saleswoman fresh out of college at the age of 23, and she left last year, after almost 18 years. During that time she worked for several major companies, including Novartis and Smith Klein Beecham, and won many national awards for her sales.

Now she says a key sales strategies was paying “Key Opinion Leaders” to deliver educational presentations, which could earn them more than $2000 per speech.

“Key opinion leaders were sales people for us, and we would routinely measure the return on our investment, by tracking prescriptions before and after their presentations,” Kimberly Elliott told me. “If that speaker didn’t make the impact the company was looking for, then you wouldn’t invite them back.”

In a television interview running today on the website of the British Medical Journal, the former drug rep says if a doctor delivered a speech at breakfast, lunch and dinner, they could easily $5000 or more per day.

Accompanying the interview with the former industry insider, the editor of the BMJ has written a strongly worded editorial called “Key Opinion Leaders your time is up”.

Whether all this has any impact on the wild market place that is modern medicine, is anyone’s guess.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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