Commercial Funding of CME, and Distinguishing Babies from Bathwater

There has been quite a bit of discussion lately about how industry funding influences continuing medical education. One of our industrious scouts pointed out one of the most recent entries in this discussion, an article on this subject by the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Dr Anthony N DeMaria [DeMaria AN. Continuing education, industry, and physicians. J Am Coll Cardiol 2008; 52: 1035-1036. Link here.]

Dr DeMaria confessed to "very mixed feelings" about the move to end commercial support of CME. He felt that such commercial support did some good.

This support has been estimated to amount to nearly $1 billion per year and has enabled us to have the breadth and depth of learning opportunities we currently enjoy.

Although he acknowledged that commercial support "sometimes appeared to primarily serve the interests of the supporters," he felt that full disclosure would allow physicians to be properly skeptical of that support.

I have a further, even more basic, reservation about the proposal to end commercial support for CME. Inherent in such an action is the idea that physicians are like sheep: easily led and without the ability to recognize biased or slanted information. I find this demeaning to the profession. In my experience, physicians are more skeptical than naïve; by nature they are not anxious to accept, but rather are waiting to be convinced. Given the competitive demands entailed in becoming a physician, we are likely intelligent enough to recognize bias when it is present.

Thus, he also felt that terminating commercial support would be bad.

I worry that termination of all commercial support is a major overreaction.

I view the proposal to eliminate all industrial support of medical education as throwing the baby out with the bath water. I agree that certified CME should be objective and free of all bias, and I am not naïve enough to think that this has been fully achieved. However, I think there are other ways to accomplish this goal, and that we have the structure in place to be successful in the ACCME, medical societies, and academic institutions. Tightening existing guidelines and greater diligence to adherence should be adequate. Equally important, I think physicians are intelligent, savvy, and independent enough to know bias when they see it, and to resist recommendations that are not based on firm data. Physicians may not be perfect, but in pursuing continuing education, we have set an example for other professions to follow. Industrial support has helped to make this possible; let's think long and hard before we upset the cart.

First, note that this is yet another argument that physicians ought to be offended by the notion that they can be influenced by commercial relationships. I agree that maybe few physicians consciously alter their decisions and judgments according to their financial relationships with companies that have vested interests in selling health care products or services. But, common sense and experimental psychology suggests that such relationships can influence judgments and decisions even without conscious awareness of their effects.

Second, note that Dr DeMaria makes yet another argument that full disclosure can resolve conflicts of interest. However, there is also evidence from experimental psychology that disclosing conflicts may give people a license to further exaggerate their communication and actions in favor of their personal financial interests, and that recipients of disclosure may not know how to adjust for it adequately (see post here.)

I disagree with Dr DeMaria. I do not think the current approach, based on full disclosure as an adequate way to manage the conflicts caused by industry funded CME, and to manage conflicts of individual continuing medical educators, is adequate.

Finally, it appears that Dr DeMaria did not disclose his own financial relationships with commercial suppliers of health care goods and services. A bit of searching revealed that he serves or has served on medical advisory boards for CardioNet, Cardiodynamics International, and ResMed, on the scientific advisory board of BSP, and on the board of directors of Biosite. A disclosure for the American College of Cardiology ACCEL program also stated he has gotten modest (<$10,000) consulting fees or honoraria from "all echocardiography and ultrasound companies." He did not disclose these relationships in association with the article cited above, nor did he disclose them in conjunction with his role as editor-in-chief of the journal. A disclosure for a 2006 CME program included "Stock Options: Resmed, Biosite, Targe GW. Consulting Fees: Resmed, Targe GW, Vasomedical. Research Grants: Resmed, Acoufiant. Speaker: Acoufiant. Employment: Resmed. Ownership/Partnership: Resmed. Officer/Trustee: Resmed, Biosite. Receipt of Royalties: Resmed."

Although Dr DeMaria asserted that physicians are smart enough to recognize bias when they see it, it is not clear they could recognize the effect of financial relationships which are not disclosed to them at all. Dr DeMaria did not give his physician readers an opportunity to judge whether his defense of commercially sponsored CME might have been influenced by his own relationships with industry, nor did he give his readers an opportunity to judge whether his actions and writing as the editor in chief of a major medical journal were otherwise influenced by these relationships.

In my humble opinion, as I have said before, those who advocate particular health policy positions have the same obligation to disclose relevant conflicts of interest as do those who advocate particular approaches to clinical problems. Policy positions ought to be skeptically evaluated taking into account whether those expressing them stand to gain personally from what they advocate. Failure to adequately disclose conflicts of interest ought to inspire even more skepticism.

I fear much that today much of the health policy debate amounts to stealth health policy advocacy.

Furthermore, in my humble opinion, those who exercise editorial control over health care and medical journals have the same obligation to disclose relevant conflicts of interest as do authors of clinical research articles.

Finally, based on the experimental psychology study to which I alluded above, I doubt that even full disclosure of all conflicts in detail will allow adequate management of the conflicts of interest that now pervade medicine and health care.

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