More than 70 per cent of Australian general practitioners regularly see drug company sales representatives, according to a small survey conducted by consumer group CHOICE.

After clinical evidence, drug company reps were the second most commonly used source of information on new drugs. In third place was the independent National Prescribing Service, which is funded by the federal government. In fact, only half of the GPs surveyed said they had even heard of the publicly funded service.

In terms of the frequency of visits, most GPs surveyed saw drug reps once or twice a week, and most of them wanted access to more independent information.

While the survey was small, only 180 GPs, the results do add weight to the growing push for more independent education of doctors.

In March we learned for the first time that drug companies sponsor almost 30 000 events every year for doctors in Australia, at hospitals, resorts and fancy restaurants. While these are known as “educational” events, the industry is very up-front about the fact that many of them are a mix of promotion and education – whatever that means.

In recent months the debate about trying to reduce industry influence over doctors has gathered some pace, with calls from a panel of experts in the United States for a “five year phase out” of all industry funding of education.

Similarly the Association of American Medical Colleges has recently recommended getting much more distance between industry and medical education.

Locally, a very colourful fight over this issue is happening within the community of Australian psychiatrists. A ginger group based in Adelaide is pushing to reduce pharmaceutical industry funding of the psychiatrists’ annual congress- their “flagship” educational event.

Rejecting the idea of immediate reforms, the powerbrokers within the college of psychiatrists have acknowledged growing disquiet about the coziness with industry, and are reviewing their formal relationship with pharma companies.

Meanwhile myself and Melissa Sweet – another Crikey regular – think it might be a good time to start routinely asking your doctor – or other health professional – how often they see drug reps, accept free dinners, or all expenses paid trips away. Others have suggested doctors should declare all such arrangements on a wall chart in their office. One way or another, the gravy train may well be coming off its rails.

Ray Moynihan is co-author of Ten Questions You Must Ask Your Doctor, released this month by Allen & Unwin.

Peter Fray

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