Doctors and other health professionals have been urged not to participate in commercial advertising or advertorials that are promoting pharmaceuticals or other products or that are part of commercially driven disease-awareness campaigns.

The call comes from Professor Warwick Anderson, the CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council, and who in previous lives held senior positions at Monash University and the Baker Institute.

Professor Anderson made the comments in response to evidence emerging in Crikey’s Register of Influence that many leading doctors and scientists are lending their names and professional authority to advertisements for drugs and other products.

The latest update of the register includes several leading medical specialists, as well as journalists and the former test cricketer Michael Slater.

Professor Anderson says the relationship between the health professions and commercial interests is “a very hot, live issue”, and will be the subject of an NHMRC forum next year.

The NHMRC, a major source of funding for health and medical research, will be looking to increase the transparency surrounding researchers’ competing interests.

“I think there’s a lot of undisclosed information that should be disclosed,” he said.

Meanwhile, a leading health service in the United States, the Cleveland Clinic, is about to begin publicly reporting the business relationships that any of its 1,800 staff doctors and scientists have with drug and device makers.

A New York Times article about the move is accompanied by a photograph of a doctor telling a patient of his business ties to a product he will be using in her knee operation.

Professor Anderson believes that many health professionals participating in company marketing campaigns are naïve, and do not necessarily appreciate the implications of their involvement.

“My personal advice to people is to not do it because, no matter what they think, they’re lending their reputation that’s been gained over many years,” he told Crikey.

“I think it’s unwise and I think that people should really not do it. But if they choose to, and if there’s no regulation, law or guidelines preventing it, then the very least is that everything should be out on the table. The advertisement should say if they’re getting paid or any other benefit from the company.”

Professor Anderson added that while there has been much debate about the relationships of doctors with industry, there had been far less scrutiny of the involvement of other health professionals, such as nutritionists.

Crikey will survey the heads of the country’s leading medical research institutes and health professional organisations for their views on the issue, and whether they support Professor Anderson’s call. We will also ask whether Australian hospitals and health services should follow the example of the Cleveland Clinic.

We also welcome feedback from Medicines Australia, the companies who use experts in advertising campaigns, and those individuals listed on the Crikey Register of Influence.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW