Anything to declare? Corporate influence in medical research

Amanda Lyons

26/09/2018 2:46:09 PM

An investigation from the University of Sydney strengthens a growing argument for ensuring distance between research, policy and public health, and industry profit motives.

It has been found that corporate interests can skew research outcomes in ways that conflict with public health goals.
It has been found that corporate interests can skew research outcomes in ways that conflict with public health goals.

The influence of industry sponsorship on the research agenda: A scoping review’, produced by researchers from the Charles Perkins Centre and published in the American journal of public health, found that corporate funding skews research towards outcomes beneficial to industry rather than society.
‘The medical industry tends to fund research on products with the potential to generate high incomes, such as drugs and devices,’ Dr Alice Fabbri, co-author of the paper and a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Sydney School of Pharmacy, said.
‘Meanwhile, food industry-sponsored research typically focuses on single nutrients rather than dietary patterns, allowing companies to market manufactured products containing certain nutrients as beneficial to health.
‘Neither are necessarily in the best interests of individuals or society, and potentially limit the scope of public health policies derived from this research.’
Dr Elizabeth Sturgiss, and lecturer in general practice at the Australian National University in Canberra, told newsGP she is  not surprised by this finding, the latest in a line of similarly-focused research.
‘We’ve known for a long time that trials funded by industry tend to have more positive outcomes for the thing under investigation,’ she said.
Dr Sturgiss reiterated that profit is usually the key the motivation behind many of these skewed research results.
‘That tends to then direct [industry] research agendas down the road of products that are going to make money,’ she said.
‘There’s nothing wrong with pharmaceutical companies making money, that’s how the whole system has been set up. But we need to be very transparent about this.’
Such transparency is necessary because outcomes from industry-funded research can conflict with what might be best for public health – and can even negatively impact on public health policy. This has been documented in another recent paper about the effects of research that was designed to counter calls for restrictions on sugary drinks in Spain, and was funded by Coca-Cola.
The authors of the University of Sydney paper have suggested implementing measures to assess and limit industry involvement in research and protect the interests of public health, including expansion of disclosure policies, increased funding for independent research and recognition by individual researchers of when research is being ‘hijacked’ by corporate interests.
Dr Sturgiss agrees that disclosure by researchers of corporate payments, even if they are not directly related to current research, is vastly important.
‘This is because we know that, as human beings, we are very influenced when someone does something “nice” for us,’ she said. ‘That reciprocity between people doesn’t just end once a payment has been made and you move on to the next thing.
‘Most researchers in Australia are very good at declaring their payments, and then it’s up to the person listening and being educated to make their decisions about what that might mean for the message they’re being given.’
Dr Sturgiss also highlighted steps that have already been taken within Australia towards transparency about payments from corporate companies to individual medical practitioners.
‘Pharmaceutical companies now have to declare all financial payments they make to any health professional that’s registered to AHPRA [Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency],’ she said.
‘Each of the pharmaceutical companies puts in a list of every doctor, nurse, or other practitioner they’ve made a payment to every six months. That’s for putting on educational events, but also for attending conferences, travel, and also meals. That’s now available online.’
The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has also taken steps to ensure independence in the research it publishes.
‘The BMJ has one of the strictest guidelines for conflict of interest of any journal in the world,’ Dr Sturgiss said. ‘They now say that any person who has ever received industry payments cannot write any educational article for the BMJ.’
Dr Sturgiss believes the increasing discussion and research regarding corporate interests in medical and health research – and the right of its audience to be informed about who is shaping the research they are being presented – shows an increasing awareness of the issue.
‘It’s a very hot topic, one that’s becoming more and more realised and relevant,’ she said.
‘It’s very important for all organisations, educators and researchers to have their conflict of interest statements right up front so everyone can make informed decisions about the information they’re hearing.’

Conflict of interest Medical research University of Sydney


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