Despite widespread concerns about the potential influence of drug and medical device company money on doctors, societies that represent specialists continue to take in lots of Big Pharma cash.

As ProPublica reports, the Heart Rhythm Society provides a leading illustration of the practice. It pulls in millions off of its role as the gatekeeper between its cardiologist members and drug and medical device companies.

Last year these companies paid more than $5 million to push their products at the society’s annual meeting, bombarding doctors with promotional materials and company-sponsored events. The society’s board expects to collect even more from this year’s annual meeting, which ends Saturday. 

The medical specialists’ societies are vitally important in health care. They inform the public about medical issues, lobby Congress and, perhaps most importantly, set U.S. guidelines for patient treatment.

Still, when Big Pharma targets the societies, what emerges are “subtle ways in which the companies and professional societies become partners and — wittingly or unwittingly — physicians become agents on behalf of the interests of the sponsoring company,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

In some cases, industry money can corrupt the way doctors practice medicine in not-so-subtle ways. For example, two of the nation’s biggest device manufacturers and major donors to the Heart Rhythm Society — St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific — settled cases in 2009 accusing them of providing doctors with kickbacks for installing their devices.

Questions also were raised by a study published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that 22.5 percent of the patients who received cardiac defibrillator implants — expensive devices that are a lucrative source of industry revenue — did not meet scientific criteria for getting them. Soon afterward, the Heart Rhythm Society disclosed that it was cooperating with a Justice Department investigation into the issue.

Board members of medical societies are among those with financial ties to to leading drug and device companies. At the Heart Rhythm Society, ProPublica found that 12 of the 18 directors are paid speakers or consultants for the companies, and the outgoing president disclosed research ties to the industry.

The society’s officials have said that industry money does not buy influence and is essential for developing new treatments. Still, on Thursday Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, the society’s incoming president, announced new policies that require more detailed disclosure of its board members’ financial ties.

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