Every day, medical professionals are relied upon by people at their most vulnerable, and often, their most desperate. But their duty to society is so vital that blind faith and deference to their moral scruples is simply irresponsible. Every conceivable measure to prevent ethical lapses among doctors should be taken in order to prevent the possibility of anything but the patient’s health influencing their decision-making. To that end, the University Medical School’s decision to discontinue corporate sponsorship of postgraduate classes is a commendable step that should be emulated by institutions across the country.
Nationally, as much as half of the funding for continuing medical education classes comes from private corporations like pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers. These classes, which are offered to teach practicing clinicians about new methods and treatments, are mandatory for doctors in many states. On the recommendation of the Medical School’s Conflict of Interest Group, officials decided to end any corporate sponsorship of CME classes starting next January. The Medical School says that it expects to make up for the lost revenue with thriftier spending and higher registration fees for participating doctors.
The importance of impartiality in medicine couldn’t be more black and white. Where patients’ lives are at stake, medical professionals should only be focused on improving their condition, not repaying an implicit debt to pharmaceutical and device companies who sponsored their classes. And it’s equally important for CME instructors who teach doctors to be isolated from the corporations that indirectly pay them.
But the expectation that medical instructors can essentially be paid by private industry without any resulting bias in the way they present the corporations’ products is absurd. Whether or not doctors are willing to recognize it, commercial sponsorship presents clear potential for the development of biases among clinicians. And while critics often cite studies in which doctors report no bias in the way CME classes are taught, it’s necessary to remember that such a bias might be subtler than doctors immediately recognize. More importantly, the doctors surveyed had an interest in reporting no bias, as they would have to pay more for required CME classes were corporate sponsorship banned.
And while doctors are generally well-paid, precautions should be taken so that the costs for doctors to attend CME classes don’t become excessive without commercial sponsorship. To counter this new problem, government agencies could create CME funding pools. Pharmaceutical corporations who want to sponsor doctors’ education about new products — of which they will certainly benefit — would give the money to an independent entity rather than directly funding classes. Such a policy would put distribution of CME funds in the hands of governments and institutions, eliminating conflicts of interest while preserving private enterprise as a source of funding.
But the University Medical School is among the first to bar corporate sponsorship of CME classes. In order to protect the trust vested in the medical community, other institutions should follow suit by purging their classrooms of corporate influence.