Growing concern over medical freebies

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 12/04/2014

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Doctors and nurses accepted drug company-funded trips, meals and gifts worth almost $170,000 last year amid growing concern about the freebies' potential to influence medical decisions.

District health board gift registers obtained under the Official Information Act show health workers accepted 109 drug company "gifts", including overseas trips flying business class.

The largest gift, from Novartis to an Auckland doctor, was $13,500 in flights and accommodation to attend a four-day osteoporosis meeting in Rome.

Drug companies also hosted meals, including Roche and Gilead spending $6400 for two "educational dinners" for 35 Auckland haematology staff.

One Wellington intensive care doctor was paid a $2500 honorarium for one day's work advising Baxter Healthcare. The declared gifts are likely to be only a fraction of the total spent by pharmaceutical companies, as gift registers do not cover private doctors.

Despite Health Minister Tony Ryall's 2012 assurances that DHBs would standardise their approaches to declaring drug company gifts, policies still vary widely.

Some DHBs had no gift register. Others had registers, but with nothing declared. Waitemata DHB's 6800 staff declared just one "gift" in 12 months - a tapa cloth given to its chief executive.

Countries are now demanding greater transparency of payments to doctors as research has shown drug company largesse influences medical decisions.

Australia's pharmaceutical industry body Medicines Australia now declares how much it spends on hospitality and advisory boards.

Medical Association president Mark Peterson supported a similar public national register here.

"To say you're not influenced at all by drug company behaviour is a bit naive. . . . The key point is openness and the declaration of any interest."

However, he would not advocate banning doctors and nurses from accepting drug company sponsorship.

IN THE MONEY

Auckland:17 drug company* gifts declared, worth $32,592. The only health board to identify recipients.

Counties Manukau:29 drug company gifts declared, worth $45,809. Two gifts were declined.

Waikato: One policy outlaws gifts, such as free air travel or accommodation. Another says drug firms commonly provide subsidised travel and such "outside" work must not interfere with DHB duties.

Bay of Plenty:1 drug company gift declared, worth $50.99.

Hawke's Bay: Gifts must be reported but no register is kept.

Mid Central: No register kept. Staff required to "decline gifts or benefits that place oneself under any obligation or perceived influence".

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Hutt Valley:1 drug-company gift declared, worth $750.

Capital & Coast:7 drug company gifts declared, worth $9445.

Canterbury: Staff must file conflict of interest forms, but no log kept.

West Coast: No register kept.

Southern:56 drug company gifts declared, worth $80,690.

Northland, Waitemata, Tairawhiti, Lakes: Some gifts declared but none from drug companies.

Taranaki, Whanganui, Wairarapa, Nelson-Marlborough, South Canterbury: No gifts declared.

* "Drug company" includes medical device makers

- The Dominion Post

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